The Brooklyn Nets impose themselves on opponents with one of the least traditional big-minute lineups found in these playoffs.
Originally assembled to compete for a title in a more traditional way, the Nets now stand at the forefront of small-ball's evolution as a perfect example of why having four playmaking ball-handlers orbiting one center can lead to extreme levels of offensive prosperity.
This isn’t a new development. As Jared Dubin wrote on this site in mid-April, Brooklyn’s small-ball identity was a staple of their regular-season success:
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.
That incredible play has carried over into their first-round matchup against the Toronto Raptors. The Nets score 118.4 points per 100 possessions when Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams share the floor. They outscore opponents by 17.4 points per 100 possessions.
These astronomical numbers came to be in only 64 minutes of action, and the more they play the further they’ll come back to reality. But it’s clear the Nets have something here. Take any three of the players listed above and throw Kevin Garnett in the mix, and that foursome is outscoring Toronto by at least 10 points per 100 possessions.
How are they doing it? Livingston, Williams, Pierce and Johnson are all able to pass, dribble, drive, shoot and, most importantly, wreak havoc in the post (Williams less so than the other three).
Destroying a defense by going down low doesn’t necessarily translate to backing someone down and scoring over the top. In fact, Brooklyn’s greatest success comes when the Raptors double down, and the Nets move the ball from the post to the three-point line.
As soon as Toronto traps Pierce, the ball flies out to Williams, who swings it to an even more wide-open Johnson for the triple. Here’s another example. This time with a few Nets bench players chipping in.
As soon as Johnson goes to the block on Landry Fields, Kyle Lowry leaves his man to double. The ball swings to Alan Anderson, who bobbles it before passing off to Livingston. It doesn’t matter, though, because the Raptors are in full scramble mode. Anderson eventually gets it back, attacks an open driving lane and draws a shooting foul.
None of this works if the Raptors don’t believe the Nets can outright score in the post. But, of course, they do. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Livingston was the most efficient post player in the entire league during the regular season, Johnson is shooting just over 50 percent on nearly 200 shot attempts (post-ups are his second most common form of attack) and Pierce is more than capable of taking smaller players to the block with a wide variety of punishing options.
It’s a terrible matchup for the smaller Raptors, who’ve done their best to trap and recover but are finding that strategy incredibly difficult to sustain over four quarters.
DeMar DeRozan spends most of his energy focusing on various offensive responsibilities, Terrence Ross is too small to handle either Livingston or Johnson by himself (and has instead been tasked with guarding Williams) and there’s only so much toughness Lowry can distill before his lack of height becomes a problem.
On defense, the issues that a heavily utilized small-ball unit comes across haven’t popped up yet for Brooklyn for a variety of reasons. Why? Kevin Garnett is still the anchor; he’s an extremely effective help defender and looks like someone who’ll dominate defensive glass until he’s 77.
On paper, playing Pierce heavy minutes at power forward would lend itself to some issues, but so far he’s handled himself fine. He’s bulky, knows how to leverage his body against larger opponents and is always in the exact right spot defending the pick-and-roll.
It helps that Toronto doesn’t have a post scorer to make Pierce pay, and should the Nets advance to the next round, the Miami Heat won’t either. Johnson and Livingston are also two large, long guards who understand Brooklyn’s system, make solid rotations out on the perimeter and are able to switch on the pick-and-roll.
When Brook Lopez went down, the Nets went small by necessity. The result is an extremely effective and dangerous playoff team that’s able to attack defenses in ways most personnel aren't equipped to handle.
A bruising front line could force Jason Kidd to bunker down and rethink his team's strategy, but it wouldn't have to face one until a possible Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Washington Wizards. For now, Brooklyn has the Raptors right where it wants them.