If it was a question of whether or not the transformed Nets’ defense could hold up against a quality opponent, the answer is a resounding yes.
That much became clear, quickly, in Brooklyn’s 110-95 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, the Nets’ fourth win in their last five games under newly promoted head coach Jacque Vaughn.
The Nets, who owned the NBA’s worst defense before Vaughn stepped in, have found their identity on that end of the floor. They held the Clippers under the 100-point mark and continue to rank league-best in opponent points per game.
Even Nets owner Joe Tsai tweeted his pleasure with the performance: “Great win! Elite defense.”
Truer words couldn’t have been spoken: The Nets held their fifth consecutive opponent below 100 points. It’s their longest such streak in the past eight seasons. It also ties any team’s longest streak from last season.
“We dedicated our energy and effort on the defensive end of the floor, which was which was special,” Vaughn said. “And hopefully this group is feeling it: shot-clock violations, blocked shots, coming over [and] helping each other, that piece of it. It has to be contagious.”
And on Wednesday night, it was Kevin Durant who stepped up and took the challenge of neutralizing star Clippers forward Paul George. George took more shot attempts than he scored points, shooting 5-of-21 from the field for his 17 on the night. Durant was on George like a bill collector on the phone: He was unrelenting and never let the Clippers’ All-Star get into a rhythm.
George entered the game averaging 25.4 points per game on almost 49% shooting from the field.
“I felt like all night we made them shoot over our hands. The shots that they did make were all tough,” Durant said postgame. “I felt like you got tough shot-makers over there in Marcus Morris, PG, John Wall, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard: They all make tough shots, but you gotta live with some of those. So we were excited about the way our defense was trending throughout the whole game even though we didn’t make shots.
“I felt like we were generating good shots, too, so eventually it was gonna start to fall, but we hung our hat on just staying in front of our man and make them shoot tough shots over us.
While he was the answer on defense, Durant — as Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said — remained a problem on offense. Yet another 25-plus point performance to continue his streak: Durant scored 27 on 10-of-16 shooting from the floor. He had two blocks and two steals, and against a Clipper defense that sometimes faked triple-team blitzes at him, only turned the ball over three times.
Durant only scored two of his points in the fourth quarter. That was when an offense that was behind schedule finally started clicking. It was Seth Curry, after scoring 23 points on Wednesday against the Knicks, who lit it up once again. He got hot in the fourth quarter after missing open in the first half and finished with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting.
“Seth was able to come in with that group and really spark us,” Vaughn said after the game. “Then [we] put in four shooters, which [makes it] tough to double team Kevin. That gave us some good looks. So a combination of those two things worked in our favor.
The Nets have another opportunity to see if their defense will hold against a quality opponent. In the second game of a back-to-back, they will face LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook’s underachieving Los Angeles Lakers squad.
The Clippers have separated themselves as the better team in LA, but the Nets handled them with ease, which should bode well for Brooklyn in the next three games of their West Coast road trip.