In honor of Brooklyn's inaugural season, we're rolling out analysis, highlights, and more on each Brooklyn Nets player, one per day. Welcome to Joe Johnson Day.
At times, Joe Johnson appeared to be a shell of his former self. He didn't shoot well. He played boring isolation basketball, and poorly. He didn't defend well. He had the worst rebounding season of his career and struggled to pass out of the most basic pick-and-roll. Fighting plantar fasciitis in the playoffs, he turned in his worst performance of the season in Brooklyn's Game 7 loss. His PER was the lowest it's been since 2004-05 and below the league average of 15.
At other times, Joe Johnson was the single most indispensable Brooklyn Nets player.... MORE →
Check out our top 10 moments from the 2012-13 season for the Brooklyn Nets.
No one said it better than John Schuhmann: tonight's Game 7 is a "referendum" on all things Brooklyn and all things Nets. In their first playoff series in the borough, the Nets have a chance to win a Game 7 at home for the first time in Brooklyn history -- and that includes the Dodgers.
In honor of Game 7, here's seven things I'm keeping a close eye on heading into tonight.
Deron Williams signed with the Brooklyn Nets in July knowing that this was coming: perhaps not a Game 6, but an opportunity to lead the Brooklyn Nets past the first round of the playoffs in their inaugural season in Brooklyn and for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Williams has had a sometimes-scintillating, sometimes-quiet first round: Williams has had two excellent games (1 and 4), three solid games (3, 5, 6), and one awful shooting night (1-9 in Game 2) in this series. He's had a game-defining dunk and disappeared for the better part of an entire half. Williams's performance in Game 7 could be a career-defining moment.
The two-man tandemAndray Blatche and Brook Lopez played 13 minutes together in Game 6 after playing 16 minutes together in three games all series. It was their worst tandem performance of the series -- the team only shot 5-17 with the two on the floor -- but they still outscored the Bulls 24-21. In 49 minutes this series (or basically one full game), the Nets have outscored Chicago 115-74 when Blatche-Lopez share the floor, and have been outscored 509-488 when they don't. The Bulls will play shorthanded again tonight, and Joakim Noah has played 176 playoff minutes on one plantar-fasciitis-plagued foot. P.J. Carlesimo may not alter his starting lineup -- and in a game like this, I don't blame him -- but if there is any time for these two to get as many minutes as possible to pound a weakened Chicago frontline into submission, it's tonight.
The big man
Key to that two-man tandem is Brook Lopez, the team's steadiest contributor all season. He hasn't skipped a beat in the playoffs, scoring 20 points in each of his first five playoff games before a 17-point performance in Game 6. Offensively, Lopez hasn't done anything special or different in these six playoff games: he's finding open space in the paint, backing down Noah in the post (though Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo called curiously fewer post-ups for Lopez in Game 6), and supplementing easy points near the rim and put-backs with his 18-foot jumper. Lopez's defense has been surprising this series: while he's still struggled to defend pick-and-rolls, Lopez has keyed in more defending the paint, and the numbers reflect it: the Bulls shoot 48.2% in the paint with Lopez in the game, compared to 58.7% with him on the bench, and Lopez has had multiple blocks in five of six playoff games (including a seven-block explosion in Game 3).
One indictment of Lopez's defense: through six games, Joakim Noah leads the playoffs with 24 offensive rebounds on one foot. He's taken advantage of weak team defense to slip to the rim for easy points. He's without a doubt been limited -- he's shooting just 38% from the field in the playoffs -- but Noah's been a key cog in non-scoring offense for Chicago.
The Nets need Lopez to do what he's always done, plus just a bit more, to ensure sealing the deal tonight.
Johnson says he's been severely limited by his plantar fasciitis, an injury he incurred in February and never fully healed.
"It's like i'm out there on one leg, honestly," Johnson said to reporters after Nets practice Wednesday. "I can't push the basketball if I get a rebound. I can't really run pick-and-rolls. I'm basically just a decoy spot-up shooter, I can't really do a whole lot. I told Deron (Williams) and Brook (Lopez), 'I'll be the bailout guy: you get in a sticky situation, just try to find me.'
Johnson also said that the only reason he's playing is because it's the playoffs, and that he probably wouldn't play if this was the regular season.
"When it first came about in February, we tried to rest it as much as possible, but obviously there wasn't enough time. So I'm just giving everything I got at this point."
Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo said that playing minutes won't affect Johnson any further. "It's injured. He's done the damage."
Johnson, who battled plantar fasciitis to close out the season, said that he is "hopeful" he'll play, and "it was a little bit of plantar in February when it first started, but now it's deep into the plantar fasciitis." Whatever that first part means, the second one is clear: Johnson's foot is not healthy, and it could keep him out for a pivotal playoff game in a 1-1 series.
The Bulls' Joakim Noah is also fighting the same foot injury -- plantar fasciitis -- and played 38 minutes in the first two games, but Johnson does not see a similarity between the two. "I'm chasing guys off screens, penetrating and cutting, and he's a big man so it's a lot different."
Johnson has scored 33 points over two playoff games, but shot just 6-18 in the Game 2 loss.
Read More: Nets' Joe Johnson sits out practice
Much of the Nets' breakdown in game two was caused by a spirited Bulls’ defense and an increase in minutes for maniacally-motored Joakim Noah. But the Nets played in a way almost perfectly suited to fail against the Bulls defense.
Let’s breakdown where the Nets went wrong.
An imaginary line, drawn down the center of the court from one rim is called the “help line” and it splits the court into two sides: the side with the ball and the side without. The Tom Thibodeau-led Bulls defense is predicated on flooding the ball side with their four help defenders in the paint, which takes away driving lanes. The defender guarding the ball tries to force the ball handler to dribble into a numbers-down situation, where two or more Bulls defenders can guard the person with the ball.
A key antidote to this smothering defensive style is something the Nets lacked in game two, ball movement. Stagnation with the ball on the perimeter allowed the Bulls to load up their defensive efforts and make the Nets offense become very predictable. This static offense came to a noticeable head in the Nets’ two for 19, 11 point third quarter.
Any time an offense can get the ball to cross over the help line either via pass or dribble, it causes all five defensive players to shift and thus, opens up driving lanes, causes missed rotations and other opportunities for offenses to attack.
Swinging the ball from side to side is important for any basketball offense, but even more so against these modern day NBA defenses that load up on the ballside, like the Chicago Bulls.
The Nets used a stationary offense in the game-deciding third quarter. Watch the clips below from six Nets possessions in the third quarter and pay particular attention to how many passes are made each possession and how many sides of the court the Nets hit (how many times the ball crosses the help line).
In each of these clips you’ll see a trend: not much passing, the ball sticking to one side of the court, late shot clock situations and finally a bad shot.
Here's four potential fixes:
- Put more shooters on the court. For those watching the TNT telecast you had to have heard Steve Kerr remarking how the Nets are playing “three on five” offensively when both Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans are on the court, which is true to a certain extent. Neither of those players are threats to score from deep and thus allow the Bulls defenders guarding them to sag further into the paint, clogging things up for the Nets even more. Playing shooters like C.J. Watson, Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Bogans or perhaps even Mirza Teletovic more, may give the Nets more room to operate or make the Bulls pay for stacking their defense to one side.
- More play design. Compare the below play with the slogfest of plays that was shown above.
Both of these plays came from the third quarter, but you can see the difference in both ball movement and man movement in these sets. You will also notice the improved shot quality the Nets got as a result.
- More transition. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Nets are facing a set and ready Bulls defense far too often. Looking for more opportunities to run off misses and makes will help the Nets create easier opportunities.
- Make the most of these off days. With two days off since game two, the Nets have ample time to iron out any offensive issues. It’s now up to P.J. Carlesimo and the rest of the of the Nets’ coaching staff to highlight examples through film and emphasize ball movement in practice -- so that come game time the players will ping the ball around the court more.
The NBA playoffs are about adjustments, from game-to-game and from series-to-series. The teams best able to take away their opponent's strengths and exploit their weaknesses generally win a series.
They say the greatest lessons are learned after a loss, and if that’s true, the Chicago Bulls received an Ivy League-caliber education in the Game 1 dismantling courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets. There is no doubt that the Bulls' coaching staff has plenty of film to watch and strategy (strategies?) to adjust.
But, what about the Nets?... MORE →