Defense the focus as Nets gear up for opener

Lionel Hollins

It’s still all about the defense with Lionel Hollins.

Hollins had a reputation as a defensive-minded coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, leading them to a top-10 defense in each of his last three seasons with the team. To no surprise, he’s brought that mentality to Brooklyn: with five days until their regular season opener against the Boston Celtics, and with defense as the focus during a long film study & training session, the Nets continued instilling their principles Friday afternoon.

Hollins said the team’s defense was “spotty” during the preseason, and his guards echoed that sentiment. “We’ve had moments where we look really good, and we have moments when we have two or three guys doing well and then a couple of guys are resting,” Hollins said about his defense. “It has to be all five guys every defensive possession.”

“We were a little disappointed in our defense (during preseason),” Deron Williams admitted. “At times I think we were a little lazy, we were standing up. Definitely a lot of things we can definitely improve on the defensive end. I’m not even looking at offense, really. What we need is defense. So when we’re putting that type of effort up or kind of standing this early, it’s going to be a problem.”

The Nets ranked 19th in the NBA defensively last season, allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions, and only reached that high due to their turnover-inducing longball lineup last season after Brook Lopez’s injury; through the team’s first 26 games before Lopez went down, they ranked third-worst in the NBA, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions.

With Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Shaun Livingston in the starting lineup, the Nets switched on defense early and often, choosing to trade assignments on screens rather than trying to plow through opponents. But with the Nets returning to Brook Lopez at center and shifting Kevin Garnett back to power forward, they’re reverting to man-to-man principles under Hollins.

“In a more traditional lineup, it’s a little harder (to switch), and Lionel doesn’t like it,” Williams said. “He likes you to know who your man is and stay with your man.”

“A lot of times when you start switching, it gets out of hand, and it starts to be the blame game. Like ‘I said switch, but you didn’t switch.’ So when you’re not switching, you don’t have that problem. You know your man scored, it’s your fault.”

Hollins also switched up other defensive principles. Last season, Jason Kidd’s directive on defense was to push guys “over the top” to the middle of the floor, according to Johnson. This year, Hollins wants them funneling opponents towards the sideline. “Instead of squaring your man up, a lot of the times you want to send him down, not let him come over the top,” Johnson said. “And last year it was kind of opposite. It took a little time to get that down, but I think we’re right where we want to be.”

Pushing guards “down,” or towards the baseline, also limits straight line drives to the basket and keeps players out of the middle, two staples to Hollins’s defense. “When you look at the tape, we weren’t doing that at all,” Williams added. “We had bad closeouts, letting guys line drive right by us, and it just puts our help guys in a bad position.”

Rebounding was also a focus for the Nets, who ranked second-to-last in rebounding percentage last season and don’t project to be much better this season. “You can guard for 23 seconds, shot goes up, you give up an offensive rebound, you’re back on defense again,” Williams said. “So that’s not a stop.”

The team fared slightly better at rebounding with their traditional lineup last season, but still ranked in the bottom-seven of the NBA in the time before Lopez’s injury. That’s despite having Kevin Garnett, who led the league in defensive rebounding percentage.

According to a recent article from Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland, the average rebound on a three-point shot varied from 7.3 feet to 8.3 feet from the basket, while the average rebound on a mid-range jumper varied from 6.1 feet to 6.5 feet, and a close shot 5.4 feet. The study also proved an old rebounding adage, that the ball often bounces to the weak side of the floor.

With the NBA becoming more perimeter-oriented, both Johnson & Hollins stressed that rebounding is as much a responsibility of the guards as it is the big men. Johnson wants to grab some of the longer rebounds.

“We’ve got to get in there and help rebound,” Johnson added. “There’s been a lot of long rebounds because we’ve played against teams that shot a lot of jump shots. Speaking of Boston, who we play first, from one through five they all shoot 3s. Their bigs probably shoot more 3s than their smalls. So there’s going to be a lot of long rebounds, and we’ve got to get them.”

Hollins stressed the importance of keeping on front of opposing guards.

“Part of rebounding too is (guards) not allowing straight line drives and penetrations, which causes guys to help, which leads to big guys on the glass with smaller guys,” Hollins said.

More news & notes from practice:

  • Deron Williams wore a small gauze wrap on his right wrist. Williams had surgery on the wrist in 2011, and sprained a joint in it once again in 2012. He played in full-contact and seemed unconcerned, deflecting a question about the wrap by responding: “Any questions about the upcoming season? Anything like that of that nature that’s important?”

  • Marquis Teague was not at practice, and the team announced a trade sending him away shortly after.
  • Brook Lopez attended practice in street clothes and was not wearing any protective gear on his mildly sprained foot. Lopez has not practiced since injuring the foot in China.
  • Kevin Garnett and Markel Brown returned to practice after missing the end of preseason with a stomach virus.