BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Somewhat unprompted, Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd opened his press conference talking about the Knicks woes from outside, establishing to reporters that the team had a gameplan to beat the New York Knicks in the cross-bridge battle. Indeed, the Nets had a clear directive, one that they didn’t shy from in the postgame. They wanted the Knicks, who entered the game shooting just 32 percent from three-point range (third-worst in the league), to beat them from outside.
“Tonight they looked like last year’s team,” Kidd semi-joked. Kidd was on the Knicks last season, part of a team that went 53-29 and led the league in three-point makes and attempts.
The Knicks ended up shooting 16 for 27 from three-point range against the league-worst defense in Brooklyn, a season-high in both makes and shooting percentage for the Manhattan-based squad, and romped to a 113-83 victory that was all but over at the third-quarter buzzer.
“We figured the team couldn’t beat us by shooting threes,” Joe Johnson said in the locker room after the game about the plan. “Obviously they did. They shot the lights out. … To me, man, honestly, teams come in here, freelancing, shooting lights out, it’s almost like there’s no respect. Some way some how, we’ve got to step up and stop this from happening.”
The loss comes two games after Jason Kidd removed Lawrence Frank from his bench, assigning him to do “daily reports” and removing him from games and practices. Nets forward Kevin Garnett acknowledged that the demotion has brought about significant change in the team’s philosophy. “We have a new system, we’re changing things on the fly,” Garnett explained at the podium following the blowout loss. “Jason’s putting in a lot of new stuff since Lawrence has left.”
Frank, widely considered the team’s defensive guru, left the team before Tuesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets. Since then, the Nets have done one film session Wednesday and a shootaround Thursday morning. Not much can be implemented in that time, though they’re certainly working on alterations with Frank out of the picture.
Though Garnett didn’t go into detail, one change the Nets implemented in their film-only practice and pre-game shootaround was in the pick-and-roll, bringing the big man “up” slightly higher to contest the ballhandler at his point of attack. Both Kidd and forward Mirza Teletovic confirmed this after the game.
“(It’s) so the (guard doesn’t) snake around and get easy shots,” Teletovic explained about the schematic difference.
Teletovic wouldn’t go as far as Garnett to say that the team changed dramatically. “That’s the only thing we changed. The system is basically the same as most NBA teams.”
The system Teletovic is referring to is “packing the paint,” a scheme popularized by Tom Thibodeau, head coach and defensive guru for the Chicago Bulls. But Thibodeau’s system relies on two personnel fits the Nets don’t have: an athletic big man who can roam from side to side in the paint to cut off drives (Bulls center Joakim Noah fits that description), and athletic guards who are quick enough to keep one foot in the paint and slide out to their man on the perimeter if a pass is thrown that way (Bulls wings Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng are two examples).
The Nets don’t have that personnel — and as you’ll see in the video, it burned them.
You’ll see two general themes for how the Knicks got these open threes. The primary way is just good basketball: crisp ball movement putting the less-athletic Nets out of position. Though coaches teach that you move “on the pass” to contest your man, meaning you start your rotation as the ball leaves the passer’s hands, you’ll see that the Nets hesitated, waiting until the shooter caught the ball before stepping up to contest. On a few occasions, the Nets dropped so far down that one of their big men had to lumber out of the paint to try to alter the shot, which ended poorly more often than not.
The second is some confusion on the team’s pick-and-roll coverage. Though the players and coach acknowledged that they wanted the bigs to come a little higher “up” to contest the ballhandler, there were possessions where Felton simply darted around a high screen and took an open shot without any defensive pressure.
It’s truly “pick your poison” for the Nets defensively. Entering Thursday night’s game, the Nets allowed teams to score about 40 points per game in the paint, but also commit a number of shooting fouls, allowing teams to shoot the fourth-most free throws per game in the league. Though the Nets made a concerted effort to limit those shots in the paint, they weren’t able to recover quickly enough on the three-point line, giving up a host of open shots to Knicks guards.
In one sense, the plan worked: at numerous points in the first three quarters, the Nets had all five players with at least one foot in the paint (even doing this in a “zone” defense at one point). As a result, the Knicks only scored 20 points in the paint, well below the Nets’ season average.
But the cost was too great: the Knicks hit twelve three-pointers in the first 36 minutes, most of them wide open, including five in the crucial third quarter. The Knicks nearly scored as many points on their third-quarter three-pointers (15) as the Nets did in the entire period (16).
The Nets are without Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Jason Terry due to injury, so part of that is personnel. But other than Kirilenko, none of the four are considered game-changing defenders.
By the end of that third quarter, the game was all but decided. The Nets entered the fourth down 25 points with no real plan to fix their failed plan. Their only next course of action is to look forward to Saturday’s game against the similarly depleted 3-15 Milwaukee Bucks, and hope they can figure out something — anything — to right their sinking, battered ship.