Sometime between Blake Griffin’s spinning no-look pass and Kevin Durant’s off-the-glass two-handed alley-oop against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Sunday’s regular season finale, it stopped mattering whether or not the Brooklyn Nets could play defense.
Watch that clip again. Look at the speed with which the Nets fly up the court, conspiring to finish a play that would seem unrealistic even in a game of NBA 2K. It’s impossible to watch Brooklyn and not throw all deep-seated beliefs about the value of defense and the importance of protecting the rim out the window. Do you see how they move the ball up the floor? Have you scanned their box scores and managed to keep your jaw fastened to your skull? Can you fathom having to guard three of the best scorers alive?
Brooklyn pushed its chips to the center of the table in January when it flipped its best defensive big man and a slew of other contributors for James Harden. Other teams, like Nets head coach Steve Nash’s mid-to-late-aughts Phoenix Suns, have gone all in on attacking the rim and filling the stat sheet, but none as aggressively as the Nets have this season, and none with a better shot of hanging a banner. Brooklyn can score more—and more efficiently—than any team that’s come before it. Just don’t expect the Nets to stop anyone from doing the same.
“It is going to be a work in progress the entire season,” Nash told ESPN’s Malika Andrews in January before Harden’s fourth game with the team. “And it has to be our No. 1 priority.”
Four months later, Brooklyn still has some work to do on the other end. But it might not even matter. Heading into their opening round matchup with the Boston Celtics, the second-seeded Nets’ offense is firing on all cylinders, and it might make them the exception to the old adage that defense wins championships.
Even after the Golden State Warriors sparked the 3-point shooting revolution that transformed a middle-out league into a high-flying offensive juggernaut, it’s been defensive consistency, not scoring prowess, that has provided the best indicator of postseason success. Since the 2000–01 season, when the Los Angeles Lakers won their second consecutive championship despite playing the ninth-worst defense in the league, all but one title-winning squad had a top-10 defensive rating. (That exception was the 2017–18 Warriors, whose defense ranked 11th.)
So how does Brooklyn fare protecting its own basket? Pretty poorly. The Nets are allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions—22nd in the NBA, and second-worst among playoff teams, ahead of only the Portland Trail Blazers. Even before adding Harden—a notorious lackluster defender—the Nets, already featuring a backcourt sieve in Kyrie Irving, weren’t impressive on that end of the floor. And after trading away Jarrett Allen (their best shot blocker), guard Caris LeVert (who improved defensively during Brooklyn’s playoff push last season), and two others for Harden, they got even worse, slipping from a middling defensive unit to a bottom-third one.
The result is a team that scores points in bunches not just because it can, but because it must. All three heads of Brooklyn’s hydra played at least 35 games for the team this season, and scored at least 25 points per game when healthy. And for all their struggles defensively, the Nets ended the year with the single most efficient offense in NBA history, scoring 117.3 points per 100 possessions, while leading the league in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
Brooklyn has only gotten better offensively since trading for Harden, too. At first glance, it seems obvious: Harden—a former MVP who, had it not been for the way he bulldozed a path out of Houston, could have made a case for his second trophy this season—is one of the best scorers of his generation, and an adept passer. Adding a three-time scoring champion to any roster is a recipe for an improved offense. Harden may be a defensive liability, but he’s more than made up for it on the other end of the floor. The Beard is averaging 24.6 points on 47.1 percent shooting (36.6 percent from deep), and leads the team with 10.9 assists per outing.
Trading for him was a risk. Defenses are built on chemistry—something hard to come by when attempting to incorporate three high-usage players into a roster already suffering from mass turnover. And the Nets’ choice to treat defense as a second-rate pursuit goes beyond dumping Allen, their best interior presence. After landing Harden, Brooklyn doubled down on its offense-only strategy, picking up former All-Star big men Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on the buyout market, neither of whom ever developed a reputation as a low-post or perimeter stopper, and the latter of whom retired abruptly in April after a health scare.
But by and large, Nets general manager Sean Marks’ bet has paid off. Nine of Brooklyn’s 10 best offensive two-man lineups with at least 300 minutes played include at least one of Durant, Harden, or Irving, and the Nets score an unfathomable 122.1 points per 100 possessions when Harden and Durant re-create the magic they found in Oklahoma City together.
Thanks to a litany of injuries, though, for the most part, Brooklyn fans have yet to see what their engine looks like when gunning at full throttle. Their big three have combined to miss 77 games this season and have played sparsely together, only sharing the floor for 202 minutes over a mere eight regular season games. That’s a smaller share of floor time than any previous championship team’s top-three players have had to date, per FiveThirtyEight. Still, when all three are healthy, Brooklyn’s already historically efficient offense gets even better, rising from 117.3 points per 100 possessions to 119.6—the difference between the eighth best offense in basketball to the best one.
“No team is going to win anything in this league if they don’t get stops,” Irving told Sports Illustrated in February. Since then, Brooklyn has still been a bottom-half defensive team—but it has improved noticeably. Over the final month of the season especially, the Nets began to find their footing on defense, transitioning from a laughable unit to at least a mediocre one. And despite dealing with a lengthy injury to Harden during that stretch, Brooklyn remained one of the best offensive teams in the league, thanks to its other two superstars.
Maybe even more intimidating for opponents than Brooklyn’s big three is the lineup flexibility Nash has found as a result of that trio’s injury woes. The Nets ran out 38 different starting lineups in 72 games this season—the most of any playoff team. In contrast, the Milwaukee Bucks employed 12 unique combinations. The oft-injured Lakers tried 25, and the East’s top seed, the Philadelphia 76ers, had 27. With its key contributors so frequently confined to the infirmary, Brooklyn’s supporting cast was often forced into unfamiliar or unexpected roles, but the results, even on defense, should inspire confidence in Brooklyn fans.
Bruce Brown, a 2018 second-round pick who projected as a career role-player with the Detroit Pistons, has emerged as a key two-way contributor in Brooklyn. Nic Claxton, the first pick of 2019’s second round, has shown the defensive instincts that made him a terror to play against at Georgia, and shooters like Landry Shamet and Joe Harris—the latter of whom leads the league in 3-point percentage—continue to dial it in from deep.
Seven of Brooklyn’s top contributors, including all three of its stars, shoot better than 36 percent from deep, giving whichever players aren’t camped out beyond the arc the space to attack the rim at will. Harden, Durant, and Irving all received more assists from one of the other two than any other teammate this season, and despite their lack of shared time on the floor, that cohesion should give the Nets a lift in the playoffs once rotations shrink.
All this should frighten Boston, and the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Nets’ offensive chemistry will only improve with repetitions. They can always dominate opponents in isolation, which they turn to the second most in the NBA, and play more efficiently than anyone else. But Brooklyn is already the third-best team in transition; there’s a not-too-distant future wherein showstopping sequences like the one that ended with Durant’s mic drop against Cleveland are the norm, no matter the opponent.
At times, the Nets struggled to contain the teams that will likely stand between them and their first championship since joining the NBA 45 years ago. Twice since acquiring Harden, Brooklyn fell to the top-seeded 76ers, who scored more than 120 points in each contest. But each of those outings came with only one of the Nets’ big three on the floor. And two potential finals foes, the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, each have top-tier offensive units along with stingy defenses. But Brooklyn dispatched Phoenix twice without having all of Harden, Durant, and Irving healthy, and its blowout March loss to the Jazz came without any of the trio. At full strength, only the Lakers—who’ve spent the spring dealing with their own injury troubles—have the top-end talent to match what the Nets can bring offensively. But Los Angeles first needs to best the Suns, then the Nuggets or Blazers, and then likely the Jazz, before taking on with tired legs what should be their toughest challenge in the Nets.
In January, Nash told reporters that his team’s defensive development would “make or break” its season. Now, with four months of practice in the rearview, and on the eve of the team’s campaign for a championship, it seems time to offer an addendum to that logic: The Nets defense will make or break their season, unless they keep scoring their way out of trouble.