How Nets created one of NBA’s stingiest defensive lineups

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Between anti-vaccine stances and trade demands, suspensions and star insurrections, it’s hard for the Nets to surprise anyone. Or themselves.

But here’s a shocker. Brooklyn — undone the past few years by a sievelike defense — has arguably the most effective defensive lineup in the entire league.

No, seriously.

“Really?” said Nic Claxton, the man actually anchoring that quintet. “I didn’t know that. Solid!”

Yes, they have been. Surprisingly so.

Claxton joined superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and wings Royce O’Neale and Joe Harris to come into Friday’s game with a devastatingly-effective 94.1 defensive rating in their 116 minutes on the court together. That was the best of any NBA lineup that had logged at least 75 minutes.

“Just trying to stay defensive-minded, doing all the little stuff here that [wins],” Harris said. “Offensively for us, having Ky and Kev, they’re obviously going to be able to score and carry us that way against anybody that we play against; so as long as we’re locked in defensively, that’s really where we’re going to win a lot of games.

Kevin Durant, Joe Harris and Nic Claxton help form one of the best five-man defensive lineups in the NBA.
AP

“I think just the ability to have guys guard one-through-five. When we have [that] lineup out there you’re really able to do a lot of pressure on the ball handlers, because we’ve got guys who can switch, [and help]. Then we’re plugging all of the gaps, communication has been good. When you have five guys that are versatile like that, it just kind of keeps everybody [in tune]. The synergy is good. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to be effective.”

Exactly how have they been so effective? Especially on a Nets team that often has seen the defensive end of the floor be the Achilles heel that undoes their dominance on the other end?

“[It’s] the effort we play with on the defensive side of the ball,” said Durant. “I think we figured out what type of team we want to be on that side of the ball.”

Brooklyn dumped their old-school drop coverage when Steve Nash replaced Kenny Atkinson, going to a more switchable defense. They’ve leaned into that approach even more since Jacque Vaughn replaced Nash on Nov. 1.

To compensate for opponents trying to punish their lack of size, they’ve relied on ‘red’ tactics. In layman’s terms, it’s when they front the low post and have a second defender come over from the weak side and double team.

Watch closely and you’ll see plenty of traps on the baseline to try to negate their size disadvantage. Over the years, the best in the NBA at ‘redding’ has been Gregg Popovich’s vintage San Antonio teams. It’s no coincidence that Vaughn spent six years with Popovich as a player, scout and assistant coach.

Kawhi Leonard helps Manu Ginobili against the Grizzlies with 'red' tactics.
Kawhi Leonard helps Manu Ginobili against the Grizzlies with ‘red’ tactics.
Via Zak Boisvert YouTube

Then the undersized Golden State Warriors adopted and adapted it. With the uber-switchable Claxton — and Ben Simmons, who we’ll get to later — it makes sense the Nets would take elements of what the Warriors do, as well.

Holding out for a hero

Switching defenses have a tendency to lure teams into hunting for mismatches, and tempt them into isolation plays. And that is exactly what the Nets want, since most players, frankly, aren’t at their most effective going off-script and playing hero-ball.

“Honestly, it’s like a trap; because we’re switching … so much, and teams want to play iso basketball, and everybody isn’t equipped to score one-on-one, especially for a full game like that,” Claxton said. “I think it gets teams out of their rhythm sometimes.

“When we’re all on the same page and we’re sharp with our switches, that really gives a lot of teams trouble, because a lot of times they just want to iso, and that’s what we want, especially when they’re trying to iso against me. I like our chances every time,” Claxton added with a grin.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Josh Hart (11) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton (33) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in New York.
Nic Claxton said he has been reacting to the Nets’ attempts to bait opponents into isolation offense by “trying to do a good job contesting every shot, no matter who I’m guarding.”
AP

A quality quintet

It gets lost that NBA coaches don’t get to just pick a starting lineup and stick with it all night, but have to reshuffle five-man units throughout the evening like a hustler playing three-card monte.

But when the Nets can get their defensive big five on the floor, they’ve been tough to beat.

“Yeah, I think it’s well-rounded,” said Vaughn. “You take Ky’s ability to stay in front of the basketball, which initiates the defense. Then you have Joe and Royce, two worker bees who don’t mind mixing it up and covering up everyone else’s sins. Then you have Nic’s ability to play inside and out, protect the rim but also guard 30 feet from the bucket.

“And I think with that group, it really ignites Kevin, his ability to make plays at the rim for us — you see [in his] blocked shots [and] his ability to fix some of our switching and end up on a bigger player. So it’s been like a [fit], just the way it’s worked together; that’s really unfolded a pretty good defense.”

Claxton has always teased the potential to be one of the league’s more switchable centers and better perimeter bigs; what he’d never demonstrated was an ability to stay healthy and on the court. Once he finally showed that, this career breakout season was a fait accompli.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trent Forrest is defended by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in New York.
Alongside Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, Nic Claxton and Royce O’Neale, Kevin Durant has been able to excel as a defensive stopper.
AP

Durant has a 7-foot wingspan and has received votes for the NBA All-Defense team. O’Neale is a 3-and-D wing, and while not quite the disruptor he was earlier in his career coming off of Utah’s bench, he’s still solid enough at that end of the floor that then-Jazz star Donovan Mitchell rued the offseason decision to trade him to Brooklyn. And Irving has always had quick hands when dialed in.

Harris has been more of a surprise. Simmons was twice named to the NBA All-Defensive first team, and was Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in his last healthy season. But in the 130 minutes with him in for Harris — the Nets’ most-used lineup heading into Friday’s game with the Raptors — Brooklyn’s defensive rating blows up to 117.3.

“Probably just a level of aggressiveness,” Harris said of why he thinks he’s been effective on defense. “We switch everything, so when you’re switching out to defend some of these dynamic ball handlers, just try and get them to pick up the ball, or get out of their rhythm a little bit. Just being aggressive defensively.”

Simmons has excelled defensively in lesser-used lineups surrounded by shooters (posting a 98.1 defensive rating alongside Durant, Irving, O’Neale and Seth Curry).

Memphis Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama (7) dribbles against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris (12) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in New York.
Joe Harris’ aggressiveness on defense, especially on pick-and-roll coverages has helped his teammates to fill in any gaps behind him.
AP

But of the club’s two primary quintets, it is the one with Harris, and his vast improvements both boxing out and in pick-and-roll coverage, that has taken the club to a new level defensively.

“You notice…his ability to be more aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage,” Vaughn said. “There’s an element of pick-and-roll coverage where there is a brief second where no one has an advantage, and it’s your opportunity to take advantage of that situation or be the recipient of this pick-and-roll.

“Joe’s learning how to dictate, and he has that split second (where) he can be the aggressor and then allow his teammates to fill behind him. So he’s learning that process that’s allowed him to be a better pick-and-roll defender.”

And Brooklyn to be a better pick-and-roll defense. And that five-man lineup to be the best in the league so far.

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