BOSTON — Even before the Nets lost Kyrie Irving, their offseason moves showed they wanted to fix last season’s leaky defense. All their focus since showed they knew they had no choice but to do just that.
The Nets entered Wednesday’s game versus the Celtics as a top-10 unit in every meaningful defensive category, and top 5 in some. And that’s thanks to a complete overhaul, not just in terms of personnel, but also mindset and scheme.
Adding the likes of forwards DeAndre’ Bembry and James Johnson, along with pesky Patty Mills didn’t make tons of headlines. But they made the Nets better.
“Yeah, a few guys have came in and asserted ourselves,” Bembry said. “Obviously Bruce Brown, he’s been [out] a couple of games; but he’s been very active in that starting lineup, so him starting off like that, Kevin [Durant], James [Harden] locking in, I think there’s just a start for us. Then we have guys like myself, James Johnson, Patty coming in being aggressive.
“So it’s just more so of us being assertive, and being aggressive. Obviously that’s one of the keys they wanted to bring in this past summer was some defensive guys and being aggressive. So it’s some of the guys already here and some of the new guys [coming] together and just being more assertive.”
The Nets entered Wednesday third in the NBA in field-goal defense (42.8 percent) and eighth in Defensive Rating (104.7).
That’s a quantum leap for a team that ranked 22nd in Defensive Rating last season. Part of that is the desperation of the Nets knowing they can’t outscore everyone. But it’s also a schematic tweak by Steve Nash.
“We switched our coverage up a bit,” Durant said.
Or really, haven’t switched. Let us explain.
Last season the Nets were wed to switching 1-through-5, but now they’ve gone to more drop coverage. Not only does that suit center LaMarcus Aldridge, but has also worked well with Mills, Brown and Jevon Carter.
“Yeah it was good for us,” Bembry said. “We know who we are defensively now: Dropping and making it tougher for their guards to give it to the big. That’s what we’re trying to do, especially we have Blake [Griffin] at 5, and he’s guarding guys that are way bigger than him and a lot more athletic and lob threats. So just cutting off some of the bigs is helping us a lot.
“And obviously we’re trying to stick, keep our guards on the guards and try to make it tough on their guards and make them shoot midranges and floaters rather than just letting them run around; then we’d switch [and] now they have a type of matchup that they want.… So it’s been working for us, and like I said, pretty much our identity now and we’re pretty comfortable with.”
Both Mills and Carter are listed at 6-foot-1 and could be at height disadvantages on switches, the exact sort the Celtics love to exploit. But that duo, along with Brown, have the grit to fight through screens and make the switch less necessary.
And while the Nets are still vulnerable on the boards due to their small lineup, they managed to come into Wednesday’s game seventh in defensive rebounds by trying to keep their smallish guards off the opposing bigs.
“Definitely. Last year was a different type of defensive team, and this year we know who we want to be defensively,” Bembry said. “Sometimes, it’s more so guards taking over that role, and sometimes the bigs are just boxing out rather than switching every lineup like they did last year.
“It’s moreso us defensively not switching 1-through-5 and having our smaller guards trying to box out bigs. We just keep our bigs on the big, so we can have a better opportunity of getting the rebound. … It’s been working for us just trying to stick to our man defensively, and then collectively just going down here and getting the rebound, hitting a body and some of the smaller detailed things.”
The devil is in the details, and for the Nets apparently so is the defense.