Steve Nash's lineup shakeup Tuesday answered many questions about Brooklyn's defensive chops

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Midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s Nets-Wizards game, Washington was able to isolate forward Rui Hachimura down low on Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving. Hachimura, using his six-inch height advantage, spun for an easy dunk to tie the game at 80-80, a game the Nets eventually lost by one point.

Irving then signaled for a timeout and glared at Brooklyn’s bench, likely frustrated from having been exposed in such a manner five times, according to NBA.com’s tracking data.

The Nets, who roared out of the gate with a pair of one-sided victories over Golden State and Boston, lost four of the next five games going into Tuesday’s home tilt versus Utah, the first of at least four games without superstar forward Kevin Durant, who came in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

In the process, the Nets have seen their defensive efficiency plummet, ranking 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions during the five-game sample. They have also been abused on the defensive boards, owning a league-low 67.4 percent defensive rebounding percentage on the season. When you’re playing a majority of minutes with two players near seven feet tall – Durant and one of the DeAndre Jordan/Jarrett Allen center tandem – that shouldn’t happen.

So, in the immortal words of Slim Pickens in the classic film Blazing Saddles: what in the wide, wide world of sports has been going on here?

Apparently, nothing a little lineup jumble couldn’t fix.

If there were concerns that Steve Nash would be afraid to upset the apple cart as a newbie head coach, he disproved it by inserting four new starters on Tuesday that set the table for Brooklyn’s wire-to-wire 130-96 rout of the Jazz.

The litany of excuses that some have proffered for the prior defensive collapse ranged from the relatively short training camp clashing with the integration of Nash’s new defensive principles to the crushing ACL injury to guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

Well, when Nash was asked after the game whether his starting five had ever played together going back to the start of training camp, he said, “That’s a hard no.” Yet, the new unit played with more defensive connectivity than most of the more familiar ones.

As for Dinwiddie, whose length and athleticism helped him set the low bar as the Nets’ best perimeter defender in the rotation, he wasn’t nearly the type that impacts games on that end by getting into ballhandlers’ bodies.

Without Dinwiddie, however, Nash had struggled to find the right man at the head of the snake. Irving has been hit-or-miss, depending on how engaged he is when faced with screens. Nash would rather avoid overextending Irving on defense anyway, so lately, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was often drawing the toughest lead guard assignments.  While TLC is usually diligent in those efforts, he tends to be a screen magnet and allows players to shoot over him, which accounts (small-sample disclaimer) for this stat: entering Tuesday, opponents had a nearly 50 percent conversion rate from the field and the three-point line when he was been the nearest defender, per NBA.com.

Many in the media couldn’t figure out why Bruce Brown, who was obtained in an offseason three-way trade, had all but disappeared from Nash’s periphery, since Brown’s acquisition was thought to be one meant to specifically to address the Nets’ perimeter defensive deficiencies.

Nash joked about being “clairvoyant,” but his decision prior to the game to insert Brown in place of Joe Harris was just what the defense doctor ordered. Brown was flying around the court from the start, helping Brooklyn to an 18-point lead after seven minutes through defense and hustle plays.

The other ace Nash played was his long overdue (even after just seven games) swapping of Allen for Jordan, despite Allen’s history for getting his lunch money taken by Utah center Rudy Gobert. In a role reversal, Allen was the behemoth on Tuesday, going for 19 points, 18 rebounds, three steals, and two hellacious blocks of Gobert.

While Jordan has done nothing this season to warrant a return to the starting five, other than being a friend of Durant and Irving, consistency has been elusive for Allen, who faces another Herculean task on Thursday against Philadelphia center Joel Embiid. Allen tends to give ground to the old-school bully-ballers, so we’ll know more afterwards whether this should be permanent.

At forward, Nash also changed things up by going with a pair of switchable defenders in Taurean Prince and Jeff Green. Utah missed a bunch of open looks from three-point land, but don’t discount the Nets’ better contests in forcing their substandard 32.4 percent conversion rate from deep.

Like it’s always been with this team pre-Nash, the Nets’ defensive shortcomings were related to their personnel, scheme, physicality, and effort. Give Nash credit for putting his theory that the team would struggle to outscore opponents without KD into practice. His new rotation prioritized players who would bring defensive energy over better marksmanship.

It allowed Nash to maintain the switch-heavy scheme that is similar to what Houston ran under Mike D’Antoni, who is now Nash’s assistant. With better effort and communication, there were fewer breakdowns over when to switch, and it limited the damage from opponents seeking and attacking mismatches – such as the ones where Irving was tasked to guard Hachimura and Washington center Thomas Bryant on Sunday.

Hopefully, this can serve as a wakeup call for Brooklyn, from the coaching staff on down to the players.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve Lichtenstein on Twitter: @SteveLichtenst1

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