After perhaps the worst first half of basketball in JV High School history, the Brooklyn Nets clawed back from a 29-point deficit Sunday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, trimming the lead to just six points in the final three minutes. Indeed, in that final frame, the Nets turned their offense up -- outside of one costly dribble turnover by Gerald Wallace, the team shot 3-4 from the floor and scored nine quick points in the final 180 seconds.
This might have helped them erase the deficit, had they not been as bad defensively as they were good offensively; the Bucks hit all four of their field goal attempts (from four different players -- no hero ball here), along with three free throws, to score 12 points in the same brief timeframe, maintaining the lead without letting the Nets get within two possessions again.
It started with the Nets down 85-79, and Monta Ellis had the ball.
The Monta Ellis layup
Ellis is one of the quicker scorers in the league -- even though he's had a rough start to the season offensively, giving him an open lane to the basket is a recipe for disaster. On this play, the lane becomes a gulf for Ellis to dive into, without any help coming from Kris Humphries or Reggie Evans.
Watch the video: Evans both is playing on Luc Mbah a Moute's outside and has his back to Ellis as he starts driving into the lane. He's in no position to help whatsoever. Here's a picture when Ellis starts his drive:
Humphries is in a position to help, but is drawn slightly out of the paint as Larry Sanders moves out of Ellis's way. Sanders is not a particular threat from outside -- at least not more than an open Ellis at the rim -- but it's the split second where Humphries moves out to cover and doesn't see Ellis driving that gives Ellis his easy layup.
Look at Humphries' left foot in the picture below: it's planted because he's slightly off balance, in between stepping out to cover Sanders and trying to recover to stop Ellis' drive. Unfortunately, that split seconds he takes to recover leaves him a split second too late.
The Larry Sanders layup
Now down 87-79, the Nets turned the ball over on a crucial possession and the Bucks got a Larry Sanders layup out of it. Here's the video:
The Nets cover this play well for the first 14 seconds. Johnson, Wallace, and Williams all get through screens and no open lanes pop up defensively. But once Sanders sets a screen for Brandon Jennings, Humphries goes out to "impact the ball," meaning he meets Jennings physically above the arc to cut off his dribble penetration. But when Jennings bumps into him, Humphries hesitates for a moment -- allowing Sanders to get free for an extra second.
Gerald Wallace is in the post guarding his man, which allows him to help out briefly, but MarShon Brooks' slow recovery and Humphries' need to stop the ball means that Sanders has all the open space he needs, and Humphries doesn't have the length or recovery time to contest Sanders that close to the basket.
The Marquis Daniels 3
After a MarShon Brooks and-1 cuts the lead back to 7 with a little over 90 seconds left, the Bucks were able to swing the ball and get Marquis Daniels an open 3. First, the video:
The Nets made a concerted effort to try to contain Monta Ellis here; perhaps they felt Ellis would go into hero ball mode, as scorers are wont to do. Brooks fronted him offensively, playing between Ellis and ballhandler Jennings, trying not to let Ellis get an easy pass to set up his offense. When Ellis did eventually get the ball, Gerald Wallace came over to double-team Ellis. Humphries also drops closer to the basket and away from Sanders to help.
Then Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute then did something subtle and very smart: he cut under the basket, forcing the Nets to make a decision.
Look in that box: now with Mbah a Moute in the play, you've got four Nets players in one space on the strong side of the floor, guarding two players. With Gerald Wallace on Ellis, either Johnson or Humphries had to ensure that Mbah a Moute couldn't get an open layup, but similarly that there was ample time to recover should the Bucks swing the ball around. Because Johnson had left his man so far out, that time wasn't there.
It's hard to know just what coach Avery Johnson wants them to do in that situation -- it's his system -- but either way, Humphries & Johnson have to communicate on that type of play. Since Mbah a Moute cut all the way to the ball side of the floor, that's an extra 10 feet of space that Johnson had to cover to cut off the open look. He couldn't in time.
The Mbah a Moute jumper
With the game nearly out of reach, the Bucks put the final touches on this one by finding Mbah a Moute open for a jumper. Here's the video:
This one is the easiest mistake to spot:
Humphries hits the deck trying to impact the ball on the pick-and-roll, Wallace has to scramble to cut off Sanders rolling to the basket, and that leaves Wallace's man -- Mbah a Moute -- wide open for the game-clinching jumper.
Missing Brook Lopez
In his first three seasons, Brook Lopez wasn't a capable defender when his opponents wore ankle weights. But he's gotten leaps and bounds better this season. It shows with Lopez on the floor, and more importantly, with him off it. It's absolutely true that with Lopez on the court, the Nets are a much better offensive team; the Nets score 8.6 more points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the court, roughly the difference between the league's 4th-best offense (the Los Angeles Clippers) and its 24th (the Philadelphia 76ers). But even though Lopez is the offensive cog, with Lopez out these past four games, it's been the defense that's suffered more.
In the past four games, the Nets allowed their opponents to score an unsightly 115.2 points per 100 possessions, about 12 points worse than their season average with Lopez in. To give you an idea of just how bad that is, it would rank as the worst defense in the league by a full seven points.
It's plays like the four above that you see why: the team's scrambling with its rotations (both the mix of players, and the physical defensive rotations), and they don't have a shotblocker inside that opponents can fear. Lopez wouldn't have stopped all the bleeding last night defensively -- he, like Humphries did, tends to hesitate when impacting the ball far from the basket -- but he's the team's longest defender. It's no accident that he ranks fifth in the league in block percentage.
The Nets can't, and shouldn't, rush Brook Lopez back from his injury. But until they do, they'll miss his impact on the defensive end more than anything else.