Tonight's game in Brooklyn was just one more example of why beating the Golden State Warriors is so difficult.
After the Brooklyn Nets gave all they had to build a 16-point halftime lead, the Warriors tied the game about halfway through the third quarter and somehow ended up making it look like an easy 117-101 win.
With Stephen Curry struggling to hit shots, it was Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson who picked up the scoring slack, scoring 26 and 23 points, respectively. Yet we've come to expect scoring from some combination of that trio; subtly more noteworthy was center Zaza Pachulia’s work in the paint against a Nets team that did not lack heart and hustle.
Pachulia finished with a season-high 15 points and season-high 14 rebounds, seven on the offensive boards, as well as four assists. For a team that has consistently struggled with rebounding for the past few years — Andrew Bogut notwithstanding —- Pachulia’s work on the boards on an off night was absolutely key to giving the team second chance points.
Nevertheless, this wasn't exactly a pretty win.
First half struggles for the Warriors
First, the Warriors seemed to struggle to find a rhythm offensively without Draymond Green on the floor — Barnett described it as “disjointed” — settling for one-on-one shots instead of relying on the ball movement that has come to define them over the last couple of years. Simply being more patient in the second half was huge, but there were certainly times when they still looked like a team trying to figure out how to operate without a key cog.
Second, the Warriors really struggled to defend the three in the first half, which should be surprising given that they lead the league in 3-point defense this season. Equally surprising was that the Nets came out scorching hot from beyond the arc.
Nets came out hot
Fun fact about Brooklyn that I failed to fully appreciate until watching them tonight: they play at the fastest pace in the league and have the third most 3-point attempts in the NBA.
So to the extent that they play faster and shoot more threes than the Warriors, it could be said the Nets have embraced the modern “pace and space” philosophy more aggressively than anyone in the league. The thing is that they don't normally make that many threes, making just 33% of their threes, which ranks just 28th in the league,
Playing the Warriors tonight, we found out what can happen when they actually make a high percentage of all those threes they take.
The Nets hit seven threes in the first quarter to set the pace of the game and took a 34-33 lead heading into the second. And Jim Barnett addressed the bigger problem during the second quarter tonight: they werent afraid to go to their bench and the threes seemed to come from all over the place. Brooklyn’s first four threes of the game came from Brook Lopez and Bojan Bogdanovic -- talk about “pace and space.” In a bit of a role reversal, the Warriors found themselves trying to match the Nets’ tone and just couldn't seem to make a shot, whether from beyond the arc or at the rim.
Then the Nets came back down to earth — they would hit just six threes over the final three quarters.
Good defense or poor shooting?
We can debate whether this win was due to Brooklyn regressing to the mean or Golden State just ramping it up defensively, but the reality was some mix of both. The Warriors seemed to be caught off guard by the Nets’ long-range barrage early on, which simply didn't last; the Nets were unable to adjust when the Warriors made defensive adjustments in the second half, such as using Durant to bother Brook Lopez, who scored a game-high 28 points, or blitzing ball handlers with doubles before they could initiate offense. And we have to acknowledge Curry’s team-high five steals, all in the second half, in addition to the rebounding efforts of Pachulia and West — as coach Steve Kerr said after the game, there was definitely a shift in defensive intensity to begin the second half.
As much as the Warriors might represent the best of “modern” basketball, the Nets have embraced the “pace and space” philosophy as tightly as anyone in the NBA this season. The problem, as it is for almost every team, is keeping up with Golden State for a full 48 minutes.