The honeymoon is over for the Brooklyn Nets.
After basking in the glory that was the offseason, the Nets continued to ride the wave of momentum into the preseason, winning three straight.
But the hype surrounding their move to the Barclays Center has subsided, and after two consecutive losses, it's time to face reality.
This team does not have the personality that I thought it would have at this point. That has been somewhat of a disappointment. Are they trying? Yes. Is anybody panicking? No. But we should have a little bit more physicality.
What does he mean, though?
Where specifically is this team lacking personality?
Where is it that Brooklyn is failing physically?
We don’t have a hit-first mentality, and if you don’t have a hit-first mentality, you’re going to get hit.
So it’s not about a turnover or a guy forgetting a play. No, I’m talking about defensively. We haven’t done a good job — I don’t care if we’re fatigued, I don’t care if we didn’t practice. We haven’t done a good job protecting the paint. For us to go where we want to go, we have to be able to protect the paint a lot better than what we have.
Ah defense, the understated art that supposedly wins championships and the aspect of the game in which the Nets are struggling most, in which they have approached with, per Bondy, a "nice-guy attitude" that needs to adjusted.
Yes, that reality, the one the Nets need to change.
Before disaster strikes.
And it all starts down low, where the Nets have been getting hammered; where Brook Lopez has been getting manhandled.
Lopez, who has been getting burned defensively since the days of Shaquille O'Neal, is averaging 1.2 blocks per game in four preseason contests. But after a three-block parade against the Philadelphia 76ers, the center has blocked just two in the last three games, a span in which, according to Bondy, the opposition scored a combined 100 points in the paint.
Which has to change.
Because while the blame cannot be put on Lopez's shoulders alone, successful defense in the post begins with him.
We know that Kris Humphries is a lockdown and versatile defender. He's great at defending off the dribble, changing shots and just being a nuisance to the opposition in general. But he cannot be tasked with carrying the interior defense alone, especially when Johnson is poised to bring him off the bench when the matchup calls for it.
And in those matchups, during those times when Humphries is on the bench, Lopez is just a stationary skyscraper, waiting to be dunked on.
Which is troubling, because this doesn't come down to athleticism or physical ineptitude. Lopez is a seven-footer who has already proved he can up his aggression on the board and evolve offensively.
So why is he playing it "safe" on the defensive end?
Why isn't he assertive?
That's what Johnson and the Nets are tasked with finding out—how to establish Lopez not as a capable defender, but as a willing one.
There is no reason why Lopez should not be contesting shots on a possession-by-possession basis. With the type of body he has, in no way should Deron Williams be able to say that he "is not going to be an enforcer" and it be true.
He doesn't have to block every shot, but he doesn't have to stand idly by and watch a highlight-reel-in-the-making either.
He can, and should, foul.
And foul hard, to the point where he prevents an easy basket by any means necessary.
I'm not saying the big man needs to attack the neck of every opposing center or hip-check impending ball-handlers, but preventing a bucket, even if it results in a foul, has its benefits.
Like forcing the opposition to think twice before they attack the paint.
The 76ers went at the rim 32 times in Brooklyn's most recent loss and converted on 22 of those attempts. That's a 68.7 percent success rate, which is far too high.
So yeah, Lopez, who has averaged 27.5 minutes per contest, needs to be more assertive on the defensive end. Johnson must insist that he become more active, become somewhat mobile, even if that means picking up some early fouls.
Because sometimes intimidation is more important than measurable stats. As long as Lopez remains an interior pushover, an idle low-post fixture, teams will continue to attack the basket successfully.
Simply put, Lopez needs to give opposing offenses a reason to settle for jump shots.
And yet that could also be a problem for Brooklyn.
We already acknowledged that the Nets’ defensive deficiencies stretch well beyond Lopez, and they do, all the way out to the three-point line, where Brooklyn is allowing teams to shoot 42.5 percent during the preseason.
Not even Williams could find a way to put that on Lopez.
Porous perimeter defenses are the enemy of progress; the Nets cannot continue to allow so many uncontested opportunities outside of the paint.
Meaning the team—not just Lopez—has to become more physical as a whole.
Meaning, Johnson must continue to put the team through “physical” practices; I mean, he must continue to preach being physical in general.
Because it doesn't always come down to superior timing or execution; what it comes down to is the team’s willingness to get their hands dirty.
Like Joe Johnson did against the Boston Celtics.
He was called for a flagrant foul, but his intention to defend, to prevent an easy basket was there, and you can bet Paul Pierce won’t forget that.
Which is what you want.
Not necessarily the foul, but knowledge that shots, from both the inside and out, will not go uncontested—that an actual effort to prevent them with be put forth.
“I just think we have to play defense with a little bit more of a purpose and physicality,” coach Johnson said.
And in order for the Nets to find that purpose, to understand the benefits of physical defense and the full ramifications lackadaisical sets, Johnson has to inspire his team.
By reminding them that immobile defenses get exploited, that blown assignments are unacceptable, that self-impaired efforts won't be tolerated.
And that "nice guys" finish last.