image via Newsday
The Brooklyn Nets’ have lost games this season in every way possible. Some losses were soul crushing. Other losses could be sensed after the first 5 minutes of the game. Even more Net losses were of the “hey, it wasn’t that bad” variety. Dating back to the Lawrence Frank days, the Nets seemingly play lackluster basketball after halftime. But the #ThirdQuarterNets have moved to the fourth quarter in some games. The Nets have shown #BrooklynGrit on the offensive end, competing in close games with top teams through three quarters. Brooklyn looks far from being the worst team in the league through 36 minutes. But their fourth quarter execution on the offensive end has been lackluster. The Nets’ defensive deficiencies compound stagnant fourth quarter offense. 2-point games become 10-point deficits in the blink of an eye, with the Nets struggling to even attempt a shot. This has happened all too often in Kenny Atkinson’s first season at the helm in Brooklyn.
The NBA defines clutch situations as “possessions that occur with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, with neither team leading by five points.” Take a look at some Nets clutch stats…
Many of these fourth quarter issues arise from poor decision-making. In my last piece, I implicated poor ball movement, inefficient passing, and frantic pace as being responsible for the woes that have led to Nets’ scoring droughts. In the fourth quarter, all these issues come to the forefront. Additionally, the Nets have a tendency to play outside of the offense in close games, crowning a King of Stagnant Style. Players are tasked to create with minimal ball movement, while the rest of the team observes. What was a 5-on-5 game devolves into a 1-on-1 or 1-on-everyone game. This disrupts the rhythm of the other four Nets on the court, and the flow of the offense as a whole. The shot clock drains and shots are forced. These issues may be the result of defensive adjustments. But other times, the Nets’ fourth quarter struggles seem to be self-inflicted.
Fourth quarter execution has been a Nets issue against teams of all calibers. Two recent Net games slipped away late in the fourth, as they let wins slip right through their hands. In these games, the offensive issues differed, but led to the same painful result: a loss.
25 January Miami Heat vs Brooklyn Nets – final score: Heat 109, Nets 106
This is a game in which the Nets led by 18 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In this game, Caris LeVert claimed Wayne Ellington’s soul. Trevor Booker brought out the yams. And Brook “Brook Lopez” Lopez made his case for an all 7-footer 3-point contest this All Star Weekend. But that was through the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, the Nets entered Bizarro World (or Earth-2, if you like Golden Age DC Superheroes.)
These are consecutive possessions from the fourth quarter of last week’s Miami Heat matchup. Keep in mind the score in the lower right corner. On the first play, the Nets run Horns with Spencer Dinwiddie, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Lopez as his Horns-mates.
Lopez gets a clean look from 3 on a pick and pop relatively early in the shot clock. Lopez misses, but it was a good look, especially with Lopez cooking from three early in the game. Before that, Lopez was 11-18 from the field, and 7-12 from three.
Coming out of a Strong set, both Bojan Bogdanovic and LeVert try to find Lopez in the paint. Lopez drew the foul on that play, but he had to work very hard against Willie Reed just to get the ball. The score after the Lopez free throws was 89-99. Not so bad, right? On the very next possession, this happened…
The Nets don’t run a specific set here, with the only action coming off of a LeVert screen for Lopez. The screen may have come too far from the basket, with Lopez asking for the ball two steps inside the three-point line. Lopez tries to establish position, but Reed fights (again) to deny a clean entry pass. Dinwiddie dribbles it for 8 seconds, searching for the proper angle for Lopez. There is no movement off the ball, with wings LeVert, Foye, and RHJ watching. Lopez fires up a contested long two with 6 seconds left on the shot clock. At this point, I felt it coming. These are the next two Nets offensive possessions…
Notice a trend? This is not an indictment on Brook Lopez. He played fantastic for the first three quarters, taking and making threes off of ball movement and rhythm, and mixing it up down low. He was the Nets’ best offensive player through three quarters. But when the same player is given the ball 5 times in a row to no success, that’s basically asking Dion Waiters to rename the Barclays Center to “Waiters Island, NY.”
Whether the decision to have Lopez iso for 5 straight possessions was his own or part of the gameplan, I’m unsure. It ended up backfiring either way. It’s particularly frustrating with creators and shot makers like RHJ, LeVert, Foye, and Bogdanovic on the floor, relegated to standing and watching. It’s odd that one of the Nets’ few fourth quarter baskets also came from a Lopez postup…
The ball movement there was crisp. Lopez knew he was in trouble, and kicked it out to a cutter. But the possessions after that, from 6:00 onwards, flipped the Nets’ fortunes. The team reverted to a pass and isolate style that yielded no success. It was reminiscent of the Brooklyn Nets of yesteryear. Here are a few of the other Nets plays late in that fourth quarter. Don’t watch if you’re squeamish.
From those three, there was only one play with solid ball movement. In the first possession, the Nets run a pick and pop with Lopez and LeVert. They swung the ball and reloaded with Booker as the new roll man. But Dion Waiters(!) doubled LeVert on his move. The Heat played a good defensive possession there, with good reads on both screens. It led to a Caris LeVert turnover, but at that point it seemed like momentum had already swung. So, what’s next?
Coming off of a timeout, Foye sets two flex screens, setting up both the entry pass player, LeVert, and the low post player, Lopez. Lionel Hollins used similar flex screen action with Deron Williams setting Lopez up quite frequently in 2014-2015. The second option for Dinwiddie was a Booker screen, but the lane was crowded. Lopez gets good position on the block off of the screen, but again Willie “Effin” Reed denied the entry pass. LeVert makes a good read, seeing Lopez struggle down low, attacking instead of waiting for an angle. LeVert drew contact and a foul. Not bad, but the Nets probably dipped into the Lopez fondue too much at that point in the game.
OK, OK! I’ll stop! At that point, the energy of the team (and pro-Nets crowd) just disappeared. It was disheartening. Ironically, the Nets built their lead in the third off of great ball movement, finding each other in the flow of the offense. The fourth quarter of that game was the exact opposite of that.
21 January – Brooklyn Nets vs Charlotte Hornets – final score: Nets 105, Hornets 112
Sometimes, the Nets stagnant offense and fourth quarter droughts aren’t just due to feeding one player. The Nets suffered a game-changing drought late against the Hornets. I may have elaborated on a few of these plays in my #woes piece, but it’s important to look at them in context. Like the Heat game, the Nets held the lead at points, but the game was much more back and forth…
The Nets lead by 1 at this point, with 6:44 left in the 4th. Here, Lopez gets the ball at the elbow extended for an iso. There is no movement off ball. Ramon Sessions doubles Brook with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, causing the Nets to swing the ball around the horn, finding Marvin Williams on Sean Kilpatrick. He makes his move but fumbles, retreating back to the perimeter as the shot clock dwindles. SK doesn’t see RHJ in the paint, opting for a contested shot.
I used these clips in my last post on the Nets’ offensive deficiencies. The Hornets have long defenders and a defensive guru in coach Steve Clifford, but plays like these were more indicative of poor execution by the offensive players, and not so much the defense.
In these two plays, the nets run two of their primary sets, which is a welcome change in the fourth. In the first play, Dinwiddie initiates the Strong action. Rather than swinging it completely, Kilpatrick cuts off of one pin down screen, receiving the handoff from Booker. The Hornets pack the paint on the drive and Kilpatrick floats a shot up, looking for a foul. In the second play, Caris LeVert runs Horns. The Hornets interior defense defends well again on the drive, forcing LeVert into the air, telegraphing his spinning reset pass for a turnover.
Here, Booker unleashes Ultimate Warrior LeBron mode and scores with two larger defenders meeting him at the rim. That basket ended the team’s 3.5-minute scoring drought. But again, it seemed like the momentum had swung in favor of the opposing team. The Nets went on to see Nicolas Batum become a living embodiment of the flames emoji, in the final minutes. When the team can’t put up points during possession or from the free throw line, it’s hard to regain a rhythm. It can be a momentum killer on both ends of the court.
What can the Nets do?
The fourth quarter issues are a manifestation of the Nets’ lack of big game experience, an overlooked aspect in assessing the team’s performance. Only 6 players on the team (Booker, Lin, Lopez, Bogdanovic, Booker, and Foye) have played significant playoff minutes, and only two (Luis Scola and Randy Foye) have played over 20 playoff games in their careers. Caris LeVert is the only current Net to play on an NCAA Final Four team. Only two players, Scola and Bogdanovic, have had big time international experience, in the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics. Bogdanovic and Scola also were studs in the Euroleague.
Along with a lack of big game experience, several Nets lack in overall NBA experience. Replicating an NBA game is tough. Replicating the closing minutes of a tight NBA game, where every possession matters, talent is world class, and coaching is top tier is probably impossible. The Nets have learned this the hard way, throwing an inexperienced group of players into the fire.
Yes, the Nets stay close in games where they’re far overmatched. Although the record may not show it, Kenny Atkinson, his staff, and the players show resiliency. I think some would call their effort…gritty. But yes, the team has struggled mightily, offensively and defensively. They often fail to execute in the fourth quarter. After striking out on system fit players (SPOILER), this season has been Marked (I didn’t even realize the pun-niness of that ‘til now) as a “development” year. Development isn’t just about improving a jumper, putting on more muscle, or remembering that guac is extra. It’s also learning how to execute in close games, and figuring out how successful programs play. The coach and team are under development. Wow. That was uncharacteristically…motivational? So I guess this is the part where I say #THISISPROGRESS