This past offseason, the Brooklyn Nets composed a roster with the singular purpose of defeating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The two-time defending champions were the team to beat, so Brooklyn put itself in a position to do just that.
Even though the matchup between the two teams has come a round earlier than the Nets anticipated, we're still here: Brooklyn facing Miami in the playoffs, with the Nets poised to give the Heat problems in what should be an entertaining series.
Throw away the veteran experience of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, both in the playoffs and against LeBron James. Throw away the underwhelming regular season as Brooklyn labored through injuries and lineup changes. Throw away the inexperience of first-year coach Jason Kidd, who went from disaster to Coach of the Month in the blink of an eye.
These are tired jumping off points for bold statements that ignore nuance. Basketball is won by ability and scheme, and both teams have a handful of both.
It's clear that Miami, on the pure basis of talent, is the better team. But the Nets, despite the age of their more famous stars, are quietly athletic, long and mobile. What's more is that Kidd recognized this advantage in January, turning around Brooklyn's fortunes by inserting Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup.
What the change allowed, besides added offensive versatility with a smaller and more athletic lineup, was the capability to switch on defense. Quite simply, switching every screen, whether on the ball or away from the ball, is the easiest way to play defense.
It places the least amount of strain on defenders, eliminating the need to fight through multiple and physical screens; it negates the momentary advantage created by a pick-and-roll, because the defenders do not have to find their way back to their original men; it eliminates long, scrambling rotations on defense that often lead to easy drive-and-kick opportunities for the offense.
The downside to switching is that it can create mismatches for the offense. If a center and a guard are involved in the pick-and-roll, switching assignments after the pick will leave both an easy post-up opportunity (center being covered by guard) and an easy driving opportunity (guard being covered by a center).
That's why teams typically only switch late in the shot clock, when there isn't enough time to take advantage of a mismatch. The switch—despite the size disparity— prevents something immediate and easy.
Defensive concepts that involve lots of switching regardless of matchups tend to fail because there's time to exploit mismatches. Yet switching concepts are extremely successful when a defense is composed of multiple like-size players.
In Brooklyn, their starting lineup essentially involves four like-size players: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce and Livingston. While Johnson, Pierce and Livingston are almost identical in height, Williams is physical and quick enough to handle bigger wing players in short spurts.
That's why you'll see the Nets switch 1-through-4 action without problems—which is to say, screens that involve the point guard up through the power forward positions. And when Jason Kidd dips into his bench, athletes such as Andrei Kirilenko, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson can all guard the 1-through-3 positions, and even the 4 at times (Kirilenko is certainly 1-through-4 capable). Even Miles Plumlee as a backup big is athletic enough to handle a guard in a pinch.
Due to their athleticism, the Miami Heat play small (though small is relative, with James manning the 4). The more accurate phrasing is that the Miami Heat play four perimeter players, which means that the Nets can live with any one of their similarly wing-oriented players guarding Miami's 1-through-4 positions.
Now, you might look to Game 1 and say that the Nets gave up 107 points and got blown out. How good can their defense really be? It's certainly not great. Their 103.9 defensive rating since January 1, according to NBA.com, ranks them 12th in the league during that period.
But it's definitely improved, and it matches up particularly well with Miami (which, as Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight points out, actually does matter). And we can likely discard the result from Game 1 due to circumstance. The Nets just finished up a grueling seven-game series in Toronto with only one day (spent flying from Toronto to Miami) in between new opponents.
Expect a much better effort from the Nets in Game 2, now that they'll have been in the same city for multiple days and with the majority of the fourth quarter of Game 1 serving as rest for the team's key players.
Still, there were glimpses of this extra defensive advantage the Nets have against the Heat. Though Brooklyn prefers to hard-show pick-and-rolls and only switch when necessary, the key is that their switches are aggressive and do not put them in mismatches. So when they do find themselves in a compromising defensive position, a quick switch smooths things over.
Take this possession from Game 1 last night, with Livingston eventually switching onto Wade and nearly causing a turnover. As Norris Cole sets a pick on Johnson (who is guarding Wade), Livingston leaps out above the screen, ready to switch should Wade choose to use it:
There is the danger of Cole slipping the pick and being wide open: The rest of the Nets defense hasn't lifted quite high enough, leaving a gaping hole right in the middle of the floor. Johnson somewhat mitigates this option with his length, since he would likely be able to deflect a quick bounce pass or something thrown over the top.
When Wade does use the pick, the switch happens perfectly. Because switches often tempt players to go one-on-one, Wade tries to bully his way to the hoop. Livingston's length, however, allows him to bother Wade's potential floater after he creates separation by lowering his shoulder. He twists mid-air before finally deciding to pass it off to Chris Andersen, who's not ready for the pass.
The ensuing chaos results in a near turnover and a missed three-pointer.
Ultimately, no defensive scheme can make up for Miami's overwhelming talent in this series. Miami's ability to get opportunities in early transition is just a function of their superior speed, and Brooklyn probably has more brand-name players than true stars.
Still, tough defense and solid switching can at least stifle Miami in the half-court. They'll obviously need to play better than they did in Game 1, but the pieces and defensive ability are there to at least make this a competitive series.
Only time will tell whether Brooklyn has it in them to sustain that over the course of multiple games against arguably the best team in the league.