The Brooklyn Nets' season is still alive but by the slimmest of margins. Over the last two games, they appeared to have found some soft spots in the Miami Heat defense and every bit of hope they have left is wrapped up in their offense.
Coming into this series the Nets' experience, fearlessness and physicality were the elements that seemed to give them a fighting chance. But they also had an above-average offense this season and a few key advantages against the Heat.
Before the series started, Grantland's Zach Lowe talked about how their contrasting styles of offense and defense could actually work out in the Nets' favor:
The Nets are not a heavy pick-and-roll team, which is wonderful against Miami, the league’s stingiest pick-and-roll defense; the Heat allowed a ridiculous .577 points per play on possessions that pick-and-roll ball handlers finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover, the best mark in the league, per Synergy Sports.
Good news: Brooklyn’s offense featured the lowest share of such possessions among all 30 teams. The Nets post up, work the above high-post action, run shooters off picks, and seek out mismatches for isolation attacks. They do not run pick-and-rolls to score, which makes them immune to Miami’s frenzied traps.
Through the four games in this series, the Nets are scoring 107.5 points per 100 possessions. That's considerably better than the 104.4 they averaged in the regular season and a huge step above the 102.9 the Heat allowed on average during the regular season.
The last two games have featured the Nets' smoothest and most controlled offensive efforts of the series, and it has all revolved around using ball movement to create shots on the perimeter.
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), the Nets were one of the better spot-up shooting teams in the league this season, averaging 1.01 points per possession, good for 10th in the league. But in Games 1 and 2, they really struggled to find space on the perimeter.
In the first two games of this series, the Nets used 63 possessions in spot-up situations, scoring an average of just 0.80 points per possession.
Obviously it's been a dramatic reversal in Games 3 and 4. To understand exactly where the difference in efficiency has come from, we need to understand how the Nets have been creating those perimeter shots.
In the first two games of the series, the Nets just didn't display much urgency with their passing. They created a lot of spot-up shots in the ways they normally do, bending the defense with post-ups or by running cutters off screens around a big man in the high post.
But Miami's athleticism makes their rotations so quick, and the Nets often settled for contested jump shots instead of swinging the ball or attacking a close out, forcing the Heat to extend their defensive rotations deeper into the possession and looking for a better shot.
On this possession, from early in Game 2, Joe Johnson brings the ball up the floor and backs his way into a post-up against Shane Battier. LeBron James is covering Paul Pierce but is below the free-throw line on this entire possession. Johnson pulls the defense towards him as long as he can before kicking the ball out to Pierce.
Pierce pulls up for the three-pointer, but LeBron is so quick that the open space disappears and this becomes a contested shot.
This is not a terrible shot. It's one Pierce has made hundreds of times in his career. But he has open teammates on either side of him, and driving the ball down the lane could hold Dwyane Wade at the elbow and either create a better look for Deron Williams or force another rotation and leave Johnson open in the corner.
Here the Nets also begin by posting up Johnson. He makes a move and as the Heat defense begins to rotate, the ball gets swung to Alan Anderson who takes the three-pointer.
Again, this shot is taken with LeBron's hand right in the shooter's face. This is a soft contest by LeBron, and Ray Allen is still moving towards Kevin Garnett in the corner. Anderson should be able to put the ball on the floor and have a step on LeBron to force another rotation. Or he could simply swing the ball one more step to LeBron's man Mirza Teletovic, an excellent three-point shooter.
Like the previous play, Anderson isn't taking a horrible shot, but it is probably the least efficient of the three available options here. It puts no pressure on the Heat defense to continue stretching their rotations.
Contrast those possessions with this one from the second half of Game 3. Teletovic takes advantage of LeBron's help defense and attacks the basket. This sets off a cascade of rotations that the Heat never quite sort out as the ball is swung all the way around the perimeter and back to Teletovic in the corner.
In the first two games of this series, that possession probably would have seen Williams taking the three-pointer. But by continuing to swing the ball and make the Heat chase, the Nets were able to get a much better shot.
Here is another example of the Nets overwhelming the Heat's rotations with movement. The ball goes in to Garnett, who is rolling to the rim after setting a screen for Williams. From there the ball goes to the corner, back out to the wing, we see a drive by Teletovic and the ball ends up back in the hands of Williams up top for a three-pointer.
Williams has a hand in his face as he knocks this down. The Nets have been hitting plenty of contested shots from the outside along with the open ones. But in the first two games of the series, they were taking contested jumpers after a single pass. This shot comes in rhythm, and after a half-dozen passes and accompanying rotations by the Heat.
The Nets have also been taking this strategy one step further, forcing rotations all over the court and then attacking an aggressive closeout. Here the Nets have moved the ball from corner to corner and back out to the top, where Pierce drives past Wade for a dunk instead of just taking the jump shot.
Here the Nets get the ball into the paint with dribble penetration, swinging it all the way around the perimeter into the hands of Andray Blatche. The Heat's frantic rotations have left Norris Cole on Blatche, a mismatch that is promptly exploited.
This is not some magical new recipe the Nets have stumbled upon. The Heat have been playing this hyper-aggressive, high-energy trapping defense for the better part of two seasons. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has always been using precise movement of both players and the ball to force them into overextending.
However, very few teams have the personnel, persistence and precise execution necessary to fully implement this kind of attack. The Nets have all the pieces, and it still took them two games to put it together against the Heat's playoff intensity.
The Nets have hit their offensive stride, but it is probably too little, too late at this point. While they've been figuring out how to get the shots they want, the Heat have put their backs against the wall. Unfortunately for the Nets, knowing how to score against an opponent and actually doing it with enough frequency and authority to win a playoff series are two entirely different things.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats
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