Nets’ league-worst defense hinges on needing respect

Credibility is in short order this side of the Los Angeles Lakers, every so-called contender having moments that remove the fleeting notion of challenging the champs.

Depending on the night, the Brooklyn Nets can leave you laughing in myriad ways: At the folly of the thoughtless errors that cost them games, or the inevitability of the ridiculous shot-making its stars can pull off, on demand.

The latter was the case Tuesday, and it was Kyrie Irving’s turn to pull the lever — against the L.A. Clippers, a team that would be lauded for having the league’s best record if it wasn’t branded as chokers and fakers from recent history.

But because weirdly, the Clippers have a little more equity in the public than the fast-food Nets, it stirred the competitive juices to produce an effort worthy of their competition and not their arrogance.

The entertaining 124-120 win at Barclays Center showed the Nets are far more comfortable performing when threatened. James Harden candidly stated, “We have to come out and not embarrass ourselves” — a respectful fear only reserved for a few teams, given the Nets’ worldly offensive talent.

Irving was at his dazzling best on the floor, with 39 points and keying a late run that gave the Nets room to breathe in the fourth — an antidote against two lauded perimeter defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who had their mitts full with the other two scorers.

As if “other” is an apt way to describe Kevin Durant and Harden, but such is the gift and luxury the Nets have in tow, even if it’s one of excess. The end was the trio’s dream, making every offensive play of importance in the final quarter.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant scored 28 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Durant’s percentage line of 85-100-100 against the aforementioned defenders can only be accompanied by the Mars Blackmon line in the old Air Jordan commercials: “Nobody can guard him. Nobody, nobody, nobody.”

That type of excellence doesn’t lead to patience, which Irving was fully aware of when he asked for patience.

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“We don’t have any practice time. None,” Irving said. “We have no practice. Now, we had the most games in January. Like what else?”

Well, there was Irving’s personal 15-day absence, then the roster-shaking trade for Harden.

“We’re doing our best here trying to put something great together in not a short period of time so be patient with us,” Irving said.

Harden essentially said the regular season is experimenting for the playoffs, which is understandable given the circumstances and lack of a conventional schedule or even familiarity among the players.

The roster is uneven, and the defensive effort has rightfully come into question even before Voltron was formed, but the expectation to get this right in short order seems appropriate.

The Miami Heat have yet to figure things out, the conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers don’t have a player of consequence who’s played in a championship game and the NBA world is doing a collective yawn at anything Milwaukee Bucks-related in the first 72 games.

The overall indifference to defense gave way to a little manly pride, which seemed to be the mantra after the Clippers took a sizable lead in the second quarter. Until then, they looked like what the numbers said — the worst defensive team of all-time since acquiring Harden in the small sample size, per the advanced stats.

“We just told ourselves like look, let’s man up, make them shoot over the top,” Durant said. “Don’t help too much because they’re the best 3-point shooting team in the league.”

Harden played physical defense on Leonard, who’s built like a fullback, and Durant continues to play remarkably hard on that end for a man who’s coming back from an Achilles injury.

That wasn’t strategy, and it’ll be hard to expect that from coach Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni, who aren’t known as savants on that end. Durant has played on teams with championship defense in Oklahoma City and Golden State, blossoming into an elite defender along the way.

He wouldn’t take the trap door presented when asked if the Nets needed to be a good enough defensive squad, raising the ceiling higher when we’ve all seen how low the floor can go.

“I think you need to be a great defensive team,” Durant said. “And I think tonight you’ve seen what we can do. And, you know, we’ve showed, definitely in spurts, we could be better.”

It’ll be hard for Nash to fall back on the usual coaching troupes, because defense is more of a selling job than anything on offense. Imploring your team to play defense because your offense might not have it requires a little cognitive dissonance if all three stars are healthy.

By adding James Harden, the Nets’ offense soared and its defense only showed up when pride kicked in against the Clippers on Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

But playing the respect card could be the best strategy, because you get the feeling while the Nets’ talent is notable or even admired, giving up nearly 150 in regulation to the Wizards or 147 to the Cavs or 128 to the Hawks produces some chuckles in some of the more serious locker rooms across the Association.

Win or lose, every team can’t have a lucky night against you. Every game can’t be a homecoming game on the offensive end, not for a group that lives to tell its critics “I told you so.”

“You got to come back as a competitor and live up to the challenge, you know, show everyone why you are who you are,” Irving said. “We have to earn that respect. You know, we can have a great collection of guys on paper.”

If they need any more inspiration, looking at the team across the way is the best proof. The Clippers traded on their talent last year, playing up to their competition and not against the teams stalking them.

Those bad habits added up and were largely ignored until they came crashing down on them in the Orlando bubble, failing to show up for their highly anticipated matchup in the West Finals against the Lakers because they hadn’t built up enough internal equity to rely on when it counted.

It’s hard to say what’s a mirage and what is real, for observers or even the players themselves, this season is that odd, that unnatural.

While the rest of the league edges closer to the answer, the Nets’ best strategy is instilling a fear of what they could be to keep competitors’ hope at bay.

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Originally published February 2, 2021, 11:36 PM

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