The Brooklyn Nets finished the regular season ranked 14th in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com, having scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions. If you narrow down the time frame a bit and consider only games played since January 1, a time during which the Nets went 34-17, though, they scored 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked ninth for the full season.
That improvement, in and of itself, is not unusual. Many teams improve on one or both sides of the ball throughout the regular season. What is unusual are the tweaks the Nets made to their offense to spur that improvement.
In late December, the Nets shifted to a "small-ball" starting lineup, featuring Paul Pierce at the power forward position. Due to injury, that lineup went through multiple iterations, but every one of them was extraordinarily successful.
The four most-heavily used versions of that lineup each outscored opponents by at least 6.6 points per 100 possessions, per lineup data from NBA.com. On average, they had a plus-9.1 net rating, a per-possession scoring margin that would have led the league this season, though it was recorded in only 644 total minutes. The best of those groups is the one that will likely start games in the postseason; Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Pierce and Kevin Garnett had a plus-17.5 net rating in 129 minutes across 13 games.
Coupled with going "small," the Nets shifted the focus of their offense to the post. Again, shifting an offense to the post is not unusual in and of itself. What's unusual is the way the Nets became a post-up team. The focus of their post offense was not the frontcourt, but the backcourt.
Johnson and Livingston alone accounted for nearly 40 percent of Brooklyn's post-up plays this season, according to the video tracking service Synergy Sports (subscription required), and even that number only includes plays finished with a post-up (i.e. those that concluded with a FGA, FTA or TO). The number is likely much higher once you include passes out of the post, whether they ended in an assist or not.
Livingston, for his part, shot 60.7 percent on post-ups, per Synergy, and finished the season ranked as the most efficient post scorer in the league on a per-play basis. Though he has a very slight frame, Livingston's combination of height and length afford him the benefit of being able to see and shoot over nearly any defender. Livingston stands 6'7", which is very tall for a nominal point guard, and also has a 6'11" wingspan, according to DraftExpress.
Getting him matched up against Brandon Jennings (6'1"), Jeremy Lin (6'3") or even Matthew Dellavedova (6'4") is just unfair. He shoots over each one of them with ease, even if they are right in his face.
Shooting over people is exactly what he does almost every time, too. According to Synergy, he took only three layups out of the post this season. Every other attempt was a hook shot or a jumper.
While Johnson was not quite as efficient a post scorer as Livingston this season (he averaged 0.95 points per play out of the post to Livingston's 1.19), he had a much higher post usage, and he was certainly the more versatile of the two. Livingston's post game consisted almost solely of jumpers and hooks, but Johnson's featured a delightful array of hooks, fakes, counters, face-ups, step-backs, up-and-unders and more. You name it, Joe featured it.
Depending on whether he was faced with a bigger or smaller defender, Johnson would turn and face up for a drive to the rim, or back his man all the way down into the paint. He could shoot over most defenders just like Livingston, but he also had a refined set of maneuvers to shake himself free in case he couldn't get directly to the jumper.
He was able to get to the rim for a layup on about 10 percent of his post-ups, per an analysis of Synergy's numbers, a far higher percentage than Livingston. He got loose for a hook shot or a floater on about 20 percent of his post-up attempts, while the rest of them were jumpers of either the face-up or turnaround variety. He made just south of 45 percent of those post-up jumpers, a sparkling percentage for such a difficult shot.
At around the same time the Nets shifted much of their offense to run through Johnson and Livingston in the post, they also began launching threes at a much higher rate. Through the end of December, the Nets attempted only 19.9 three-point shots per game, 21st in the NBA. Threes made up about one-fourth of their total shot attempts in that period of time.
Since the calendar flipped to January, the Nets have averaged 25.6 three-point attempts per game, accounting for nearly 33 percent of their total shot attempts. Both of those numbers would rank in the league's top three.
The Nets have five players (Johnson, Pierce, Williams, Marcus Thornton and Mirza Teletovic) averaging at least 4.0 three-point attempts per game since January 1, each of them shooting at or better than the league average, and four (all but Williams) shooting better than 38 percent.
Many of those attempts, of course, are generated through the drawing of double-teams in the post.
This unusual style of offense can cause trouble for many defenses, but it would have been especially problematic for Chicago, which features Kirk Hinrich and the diminutive D.J. Augustin heavily in its rotation. This is why it was so unusual to see Brooklyn essentially forego trying to win its last few games in order to drop down to the sixth seed and secure a matchup with the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
Toronto has much more perimeter size with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, though it's possible Terrence Ross could be exploited on the low block, a la Augustin and Hinrich, due to his slight frame.
The fact that they post their guards and wings so often is also another reason—beyond the sage presence of Pierce and Garnett on the roster—that the Nets feel confident matching up with the Miami Heat, should they both advance to the second round, as Brett Koremenos detailed at Grantland a few weeks ago:
Luckily for Brooklyn, it typically relies on post-ups and isolations more than pick-and-rolls. So instead of its natural offensive identity playing into Miami’s hands, it can attack playing to its strengths. Even more promising for the Nets is that, according to Synergy data, some Miami defensive Kryptonite is through the post. Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, and Ray Allen — three players who will be responsible for checking Brooklyn’s big guards – all rank near the bottom third of post defenders, according to Synergy data.
The trademark of the Heat's defense is that they aggressively blitz ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations, but if you don't run many pick-and-rolls, there's nobody to blitz, and your best passers have a much clearer vision of the court.
No matter the opponent, the Nets' offense will remain somewhat of a novelty in what has become an increasingly pick-and-roll-heavy league over the last few seasons.