Nets turn over a new leaf in new year

Shaun Livingston, Kevin Garnett, Cory Joseph
The Nets have had a newfound vigor on defense. (AP)

If you just took a quick look at Brooklyn’s defensive numbers, you might not see what’s different in the past two-plus months. Their rebounding, which was already bad, has gotten worse. Opponents are shooting slightly worse from three-point range, but not significantly so. The Nets are limiting the pure number of opponent corner three-pointers, but that’s negated by teams shooting better against them from the corners and in the restricted area. Opponents are getting to the line at roughly the same rate.

And yet, the Nets have allowed nearly seven points fewer per game and 5.5 points fewer per 100 possessions, a top-5 defense in the league.

Brooklyn’s defense has rung in the new year by limiting shot attempts and wreaking havoc with their new hybrid small/long lineup. Brooklyn’s created a ridiculous 118 turnovers in their last five games alone, and their opponent turnover rate of 19.2 percent since the new year leads the league by a comfortable margin.

Put it this way: in 2014, the distance between the Nets and the Wizards — the league’s second-best team at forcing turnovers — is bigger than the difference between the Wizards and the New Orleans Pelicans, who rank 19th.

Kidd’s shrewd move was to replace Brook Lopez — a 7’2″ center — with point guard Shaun Livingston, a matchup nightmare for most guards thanks to his 6’7″ frame and a wingspan stretching nearly seven feet.

A Brook Lopez-led defense was never a turnover-inducer; Lopez’s defensive acumen came from drawing opponents into the paint, where he could deter their shots with his size.

But with Brooklyn’s quicker lineup, the Nets can still keep the paint protected while taking more risks defensively. Frontcourt mates Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aren’t fleet of foot, but they’re intelligent enough to hedge and recover in passing lanes, and Deron Williams has played with a newfound vigor on the defensive end.

Kidd’s mantra all along has been “active hands,” a simple way to say that the Nets are racing into passing lanes, picking ballhandlers’ pockets, and creating deflections. The NBA doesn’t officially track deflections, but the Nets do internally, and they’ve hit season-best numbers this season in the past two weeks.

Pierce echoed that mantra Monday night. “I think we’ve been very good with our active hands,” he said after the team’s 101-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors. “I would like us to be a better rebounding team, but stuff like that just doesn’t change overnight. So we take advantage of our strengths: right now it’s causing turnovers, getting out on the break, and shooting threes. When we’re doing that, we’re at our best.”

The speed also allows them to turn turnovers into opportunities: they’ve averaged 21.1 points per game off turnovers in 2014, best in the NBA since January 1st.

Here’s one example of active hands from the end of the Nets-Raptors game, and it’s something the Nets have done often: once they’ve gotten beat, they’ll sneak a quick poke at the ball, knocking it out mid-dribble and causing a loose ball.

In this case, it’s Terrence Ross getting around Shaun Livingston, and once he’s gotten him beat, Livingston sneaks a hand into Ross’s dribbling zone, knocking the ball loose and causing a game-changing turnover.

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There’s a few things happening in this video (besides the poor quality), but keep an eye on Livingston. He goes over Amir Johnson’s screen, and while Andray Blatche hangs back to hedge, Livingston pokes the ball away into Paul Pierce’s hands once he gets beat. It’s akin to an NFL linebacker who can’t make a tackle, but forces a running back to make a fumble with a clean swipe.

In 122 minutes together, their new starting lineup has caused turnovers on a ridiculous 23.2 percent of opponent possessions, far and away the best in the league of any lineup with over 100 minutes played. It’s a small sample size, but it’s also indicative of what the Nets are capable of with this lineup, forcing opponents into bad decisions and bad options by switching on the perimeter and keeping their big men close to the paint.

“We have to be active with our switches, and we have to be active one-on-one defensively, containing our man,” Shaun Livingston said last month about the team’s defensive philosophy. “We don’t really have a lot of shot-blocking presence outside of (Kevin Garnett), so we have to be good on the ball.”

It’s not just the Garnett factor either, either: the Nets lineup this past week, with rookie seven-footer Mason Plumlee replacing Garnett at center with Garnett battling back spasms, has created a ridiculous 36 turnovers in the (very!) small sample size of 71 minutes.

Plumlee has cited Garnett as a driving force in his development, noted in an interview with Matthew Stucko of YES, and acknowledges that he’s picked up more than his fair share of tips in his rookie year from KG’s influence.

Plumlee knows his role as the great communicator behind the guards. “Our communication helps us recover on a lot of things,” Plumlee told The Brooklyn Game Monday night. “You see the guards’ length, it bothers opponents. They like being able to come off, shoot it, pass it, but that length disrupts things.”

Plumlee’s quickness can also be a disruption, particularly when he takes advantage of opponent laziness:

The Nets still have their fair share of issues. Their best lineups leave them at a serious disadvantage rebounding the ball, and if they can’t force teams into bad shots or bad decisions, they’ll get run over. But it’s also no coincidence that they’re playing their best ball with this new lineup, utilizing a combination of length, quickness, and active hands.

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