Kevin Durant scored 51 points, dished out nine assists, and grabbed seven rebounds Sunday night, Dec. 12, in a Brooklyn Nets win against the Detroit Pistons. It was the highest-scoring game for a player in the NBA so far this season.
The Nets improved to an Eastern Conference-best 19-8, and, in stark contrast to last season, they are being led by their defense.
Last season with Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving as the focal points, Brooklyn was a historic offense. They finished the season as the No. 1 team in adjusted offensive rating at 117.9, the best in NBA history.
The Nets pushed the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the conference semifinals, and the prevailing thought was another season to gel and Brooklyn would be contenders again.
An elite offense with three supernovas.
Fast forward to the 2021-22 season, and Irving is not with the team due to his COVID-19 vaccination status, while Harden is nowhere near the consistent All-NBA player he’s been for a decade, leaving Durant to shoulder the offensive load.
Durant is doing his thing, and along with the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry he is one of the MVP front-runners as we head toward Christmas.
But the Nets’ top record isn’t about KD’s elite offense, it’s what KD and his teammates are doing on the other end of the floor.
Last season Brooklyn was 25th in adjusted defensive rating, giving up 114 points per 100 possessions. This season the Nets have completely flipped the script and are ranked sixth, giving up 107.2 points per 100 possessions.
That’s quite the turnaround.
The Nets just finished a 3-1 road trip, and in the three wins they held the Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks to 13, 13, and 14 fourth-quarter points respectively. That’s just 40 points on 70 fourth-quarter possessions (57.1 per 100).
That is elite defense.
We are more than a quarter of the way through the season. The defense is legit, and when the playoffs begin if they can lean on getting stops they’re still contenders.
Following the Pistons game, KD made the offense and his performance on that end of the floor secondary.
“I feel like we got enough scoring,” Durant said. “I feel like defensively we come out and stick to the game plan, play physical, then the offense will take care of itself. We went cold there for a second, so I figured that I should be more aggressive.”
Of course their margin for error is zero compared to last season. But we saw KD and a one-legged Harden nearly beat the Bucks. That team couldn’t guard nearly as well as this season’s team.
Another point of note, the Nets and Warriors are the only teams in the NBA that haven’t lost two games in a row.
Second-year head coach Steve Nash didn’t envision his team being this stout defensively when they got to training camp. Nash was forced to scrap the plans he had for the team’s vision and adapt on the fly. He too knows defense is the key to a deep playoff run for this version of the Nets.
“I think it shows our group is gaining confidence and resiliency,” said Nash on all three road wins including fourth quarter comebacks. “We’re able to dig ourselves out of little holes and that we can turn up the defense, so it’s always great for our staff when we see the guys defend and win games with defense. That’s got to be the way we win a majority of our games this year and they did that on this trip.”
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