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Defense is New-Look Nets’ Limiting Factor

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While no one thought the Brooklyn Nets would stifle opponents and play elite defense this year, the season-opener suggested they may struggle even more than anticipated.

The Nets’ 115-100 loss at the hands of the Chicago Bulls revealed glaring defensive shortcomings in several areas. It’s clear that this group needs a lot more time to mesh together, and several individuals need to step up their effort and execution.

There were some glimpses of promising stoppage from a couple of players, most notably rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and, surprisingly, Andrea Bargnani. But for the most part, Lionel Hollins’s squad proved to be out of position and incapable of containing foes:

Chicago looks like a rock-solid offensive unit through its first couple of games, but that doesn’t excuse some of the blunders we’ve seen from Brooklyn thus far. The Bulls were out-rebounded and committed 19 turnovers, yet they hung 115 on the Nets thanks to bountiful high-percentage opportunities.

Firstly, we saw some bad habits from several Brooklyn wings.

Watch Bojan Bogdanovic offer ill-advised help from the corner off three-point sharpshooter Doug McDermott. While it’s admirable that he wanted to stop Aaron Brooks, it’s the weak side’s responsibility to help, not his. You can’t stray from an elite shooter when you’re one pass away from the ball, and McDermott made Bogey pay for doing just that:

The Nets left McDermott open a few more times throughout the game, including a sequence where he had acres of room for an easy triple.

With those kinds of fatal missteps and miscommunications, it’s no wonder Chicago hoisted 28 threes and made 14 of them. The Bulls’ shot chart illustrates that they were able to find favorable looks from both the wing and the corner.

Joe Johnson also had several disappointing moments, including this play where he left his feet on Jimmy Butler’s pump fake and failed to recover to the hoop:

Wayne Ellington wasn’t immune to the bad defense bug, either.

Here he seemed to have good intentions, trying to keep track of his man and the ball. But this was another case of poor positioning and helping too far off your man when you’re one pass away. Tony Snell burned him on a cut right down main street:

There were also times when the Bulls simply attacked point guard Shane Larkin due to his size. The 5’11” newcomer has the foot speed and willingness to defend, but Derrick Rose and E’Twaun Moore both made concerted efforts to go right at him, using their length and strength to overwhelm him.

While that’s not an execution issue, it’s something the Nets will have to deal with all season, as Larkin will still get decent minutes even when Jarrett Jack returns. On a related note, Jack’s return doesn’t figure to boost Brooklyn’s defense if last season is any indication.

The Nets’ ball-screen fortification also looks inconsistent. Stopping pick-and-rolls and slashers coming off screens isn’t an easy task in today’s NBA, but they need to execute better than this:

We’ve seen the Nets “Ice” pick-and-rolls (go over the screen, push the ball-handler to the sideline) and also use the big man to hedge. In the above scenario, Lopez hedged but Butler still got all the way to the rim. Here’s why:

1. Lopez’s hedge was largely ineffective.

2. Johnson failed to steer Butler away from the hoop upon recovering.

3. The weak side help was too late/nonexistent.

That’s obviously a recipe for easy baskets, and it’s something the Nets must correct in a hurry.

Give credit to the Bulls for picking Brooklyn apart, taking advantage of mismatches and finding a robust balance of interior and perimeter scoring. They exposed a Nets club that’s not respectable defensively. For the most part, the Nets’ wing corps and overall collaboration looks like it’s in deep trouble early in the season.

There are other significant areas to address (like failing to make a single three-pointer), along with a handful of bright spots like Hollis-Jefferson’s play and a strong collective rebounding effort. But Brooklyn’s defense is like a leaky rowboat taking on water, and they need to play much sharper in order to quickly patch up those holes.

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