TORONTO — Execution was the word du jour in Wednesday’s Nets morning shootaround, used most emphatically by Nets starting center Kevin Garnett.
“We’ve got to be more effective in execution,” Garnett said of his team’s woes, “In the fourth quarter, do a better job of stopping runs, and I think we give ourselves a chance. Obviously we’ve got to take care of the ball, rebound, but execution.”
When pressed about the meaning of execution, Garnett looked perplexed, before offering an answer with a tone like he’d been asked step-by-step how he chews gum. “Meaning making plays together, getting stops, putting the ball in the basket.”
Deron Williams agreed. “They definitely tightened up, but we have to do a better job of executing,” Williams said. “Coming down the stretch, we have to get good shots, we can’t afford to turn the ball over as many times as we did late in the games. If you’re not getting an attempt at the basket, you’re not going to be able to score. So we’ve got to do a better job in that area.” Williams committed two turnovers in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and 5 of his 11 turnovers in this series have come in the fourth quarter.
Those plays late in the fourth quarter are well-documented, as is their big losses on the rebounding edge this series. But another area that the Nets have struggled has been a season-long problem for them: defending the pick-and-roll with Garnett out of the game. In Game 4, the Nets faced 11 plays that ended with the pick-and-roll roll man getting the ball, and the Raptors scored on seven of them. Four were by Amir Johnson with Andray Blatche as his primary defender, and only the last make came with Garnett on the floor.
Raptors roll men as a whole have shot a ridiculous 22-29 from the field in the four-game series, and have gotten more attempts in each game. For context, if Raptors shots rolling to the basket were Board of Governors votes, they could vote to force Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers.
Johnson in particular has been a thorn in the Nets’ collective side, and how involved he’s been has been an indicator of how well Toronto’s done overall. In Toronto’s two wins, Johnson has scored 33 points on 15-21 shooting; in their losses, he’s scored 9 points on 4-8 shooting, mostly through putbacks and in the pick-and-roll.
It’s a disturbing trend throughout the season for the Nets, who rank 24th in the NBA in points allowed per possession to big men in the pick-and-roll despite employing a world-class defender in Garnett. But “execution” means all five men are in tune with the team’s defensive schemes.
In a wide-ranging interview with Shaun Livingston earlier this season, he told The Brooklyn Game that on that type of pick-and-roll, the man defending on the wing is supposed to “bump” if the big man slips the screen and gets towards the basket. That “bump” slows down the offensive attack, allowing the Nets to recover and get back into position. It also potentially leaves open a corner three-pointer, but the bump is supposed to be quick to allow everyone to recover in a decent amount of time.
You can see on two separate occasions that no “bump” happened, and it was called out by both Andray Blatche and Paul Pierce. Watch Blatche at the end of the first play and Pierce at the end of the second: you’ll see them yell out to the wing that they’re supposed to help in that situation.
The Nets have preached about communication on defense all season, and no one has been more vocal about its importance than the always-vocal Garnett. Everyone in the five-man unit has to communicate for a defense to succeed at the NBA level, and it’s not clear where the breakdown here is.
If you believe Andray Blatche, it was probably his fault, and it’s illuminating that most of the breakdowns came with him and not Garnett on the floor. But on the first play, the Raptors have two shooters spread in the corners in Patrick Patterson & Greivis Vasquez, making it hard for Mirza Teletovic or Andrei Kirilenko to leave.
That level of execution on the offensive end, coupled with Brooklyn’s slow-to-react defense, poses a real nightmare for the Nets. If Teletovic helps to bump Johnson, he risks giving up an open corner three to sharpshooter Patrick Patterson, who has given the Nets fits in this series. If he doesn’t, well, you see what happened up above: by the time Kirilenko steps in, it’s too late.
On the second play, Alan Anderson makes the crucial mistake of anticipating a pass to the corner, where DeMar DeRozan is open for three, and not to the wide-open Johnson rolling for the dunk.
The Nets face a real uphill task tonight: losers of Game 5 on the road in a 2-2 series have ended up losing the series over 92% of the time in NBA history, every game in this series has gone down to the wire, and the suddenly-spooked-in-crunch-time Nets will likely face their toughest crowd yet in Toronto. Well, crap. Here’s a cat GIF.