CLEVELAND — There are only a limited number of schemes and systems for overcoming personnel, and the Nets just didn’t have the latter.
Brooklyn didn’t have the right bodies to defend the kind of stars they would face in the playoffs and against elite championship contenders.
They’re here to prove that the return of Ben Simmons and the maturing of Nic Claxton – giving them three starters with a 7ft wingspan – makes them better suited to handle stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, and stud wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Cleveland lays down a different kind of test on Monday, but Brooklyn is confident a more versatile lineup is better able to handle a variety of threats.
“Yeah, I think we’ve answered a lot of those questions,” Jacque Vaughn said. “Being able to have multiple bodies like we talked about around Giannis, seven turnovers for him.”
The Cavaliers have the best scoring margin in the entire NBA and smaller guards such as Donovan Mitchell (28.9 points) and Darius Garland (7.8 assists). But compared to the overmatched roster that proved both too short and too shorthanded in last season’s first-round sweep at the hands of Boston, this group has more accomplished defensemen to back up Kevin Durant — and more versatile defenders.
“Absolutely,” said Kyrie Irving. “I mean, I can’t necessarily keep everyone on the field and on the perimeter. So when KD can keep Jrue [Holiday]I can keep Jevon Carter, Royce [O’Neale] can keep Giannis or Ben can keep Giannis, I think our roster is so interchangeable that it’s positive for us. It is one of our strengths. And then you got two of the best guys guarding [isolations] in Nic and KD.
“I mean it makes a huge difference there and leads the league on guard [isolation]. So whenever people come out and we know we have a great chance of missing them, and when you can miss professionals at that high level, then you pretty much know we’re going out on offense and we let’s gather quality possessions.”
The Cavs (22-12) are a different type of team, with Claxton taking on his Nets predecessor in All-Star center Jarrett Allen, but then smaller guards attacking the dribble. Mitchell and Garland are just 6-1, meaning Irving won’t be at a disadvantage.
But bigger wings like Tatum and Brown have proven problematic, and Brooklyn will face longer stars on the road in the playoffs. Adding Simmons’ 7-foot wingspan and O’Neale’s 3-and-D skills to Durant and a rapidly improving Claxton should make them more adept at doing so.
“Certainly matured of him,” Vaughn said of Claxton. “Give him a lot of love to do it at both ends of the floor for us, and the luxury for us to have him with KD at the same time for a long time, and then they can play fast too. So he grew up as a young man as a player.
Simmons held opponents to 44.2% shooting, the Nets’ stingiest. Claxton was second best among Brooklyn regulars.
Claxton had eight rebounds and three steals against Milwaukee, while Simmons added 11 rebounds. And more importantly, after Antetokounmpo had repeatedly destroyed their game plans in the past – including a 43-point blowout in Game 3 of the season on Oct. 26 – the Nets duo combined for the hold to a more manageable 26 points with seven turnovers. Friday.
“[Antetokounmpo] will attack, he will try to reach the edge. Overall, as a team, we did a great job containing him and showing him a lot of body. And then for me just being physical. I’m able to go out there and hit with you, so I’m ready to do that,” Simmons said.
Durant was impressed with Simmons’ “incredible” defense of Antetokounmpo on Friday night.
“[Simmons] stayed with the whole game and was able to make life difficult, and we did a solid job showing them a crowd for Giannis to throw and return the ball,” Durant said. “Seven turnovers, Ben was the catalyst for that.”