What’s behind the Nets’ defensive resurgence

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Brooklyn’s much-maligned defense going up against the highest-scoring team in the NBA was supposed to be a mismatch on that end of the court. And through the first two games of the Eastern Conference semis, it has been.

The Nets’ defense, merely serviceable against Boston in the first round, has mercilessly smothered Milwaukee so far in the second. They’ve held the league’s most prolific offense to 96.5 points per game, including just 86 in Monday’s Game 2 rout.

“Really, we come out, we play hard, we play physical, give ’em nothing easy,” Bruce Brown said. “We can win games, so we’re just going to carry that over and get some wins in Milwaukee.”

Brooklyn carries a 2-0 series lead into Thursday’s Game 3 at Fiserv Forum, and they have it thanks to shoring up their Achilles’ heel.

“It’s the level of effort, the attention to detail, our communication, just really being there for one another on the defensive end,” Kyrie Irving said. “That makes a huge difference when guys are playing against us and instead of seeing one body they’re seeing two or three. Just trying to make our opponent think.”

Bruce Brown tightly defends Jrue Holiday during the Nets' blowout Game 2 win.
Bruce Brown tightly defends Jrue Holiday during the Nets’ blowout Game 2 win.
NBAE via Getty Images

Though the Bucks have largely ditched the switching schemes they spent much of the season installing to go back to last year’s more conservative drop coverage with Brook Lopez under the basket, Brooklyn has doubled down on its switch-happy defense. They’ve harassed the perimeter and held Milwaukee to a sorry 24.6 percent from 3-point range, but have still hustled back inside to gang rebound.

“I like our attention to detail, I like how we didn’t get a lot of plays perfect but we made second and third efforts,” Kevin Durant said. “They didn’t destroy us on offensive rebounds: That showed we were boxing out. That was an emphasis.

“But for the most part, we just did what we were supposed to do: Win two at home. Now we’ve got to see if this game is going to travel on the road for us, and we’ve got to stay locked-in.”

Blake Griffin (45 partial possessions) and Nic Claxton (a dozen) have shouldered much of the burden in keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo in check, though Durant and Brown have also often picked him up in switches.

But Brown, Irving and Joe Harris have completely erased Khris Middleton, and Harris has even done a solid job in Jrue Holiday (just 2-for-6 overall and 0-for-2 from deep in 14 partial possessions).

After watching Antetokounmpo torch them for an average of 39 points in the regular-season series — when DeAndre Jordan spent the lion’s share of the time guarding the Greek Freak and Brooklyn lost two of three games — they’ve at least slowed him somewhat to a manageable 26.0 so far. But the key has been shackling Middleton, the Bucks’ third All-Star to just 30.2 percent shooting, including 23.1 percent from deep.

“Really just giving him nothing easy, just being there and contesting every shot,” Brown said of guarding Middleton. “That’s really it. Just contest every shot and be physical.”

Harris echoed those sentiments, adding familiarity has helped.

“A lot of it is effort, just a level of continuity, where as the season has gone on we’ve improved on the defensive end,” Harris said. “That’s just our ability to play off of one another.

“We’ve always been able to do that offensively because of the level of talent we have. But defense takes time to get familiar with one another and piece it together where you’re playing so in sync that you’re able to cover for each other. That combined with a high level of intensity, a high level of preparation and you have defensive efforts like [these].”

Knicks fans have continually trolled the Nets, saying they’re not New York City’s team. And apparently the Nets’ CEO agrees.

“We really want to represent Brooklyn and be authentic to Brooklyn,” Nets CEO John Abbamondi told Bloomberg News. “We’re not the New York Nets, we’re the Brooklyn Nets and there’s a difference.”

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