Nets’ defense may end up being key to NBA championship run

The most efficient offensive team in the history of offense struggled in Saturday’s playoff opener, but the Nets still somehow ground their way to a Game 1 victory over Boston. And they shockingly did it on the other end of the court.

It begs the question of whether the Nets — and their much-maligned defense — can keep grinding their way to the 15 more wins they’ll need for a title?

“I’m glad we played well on the defensive end: There’s been so much talk about our defense,” Jeff Green said. “People saw that when our shots aren’t falling … we were able to focus on defense and get stops.

“That’s what got us Game 1. It’s important throughout the playoffs that we stay high energy on the defensive end, because it took us a long way.”

It took the Nets to a 1-0 first-round lead going into Tuesday’s Game 2. They harassed the Celtics to 36.9 percent shooting, and just 20 points in each of the third and fourth quarters.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving #11, defending against a shot by Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker #8, in the 1st quarter.
Kyrie Irving defends a shot from Celtics’ Kemba Walker.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

They were stout enough to hold Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to a combined 37 points on 11 of 36 shooting. They are not arrogant enough to think they have the answers to guarantee it’ll happen again.

“If we think we’re the greatest defensive team of all time, we’re probably asking for a butt-kicking in Game 2,” coach Steve Nash said. “If we’re humble and hungry and stick to our details and game plan, maybe we have a chance to make it difficult for them.”

That game plan calls for a heavy dose of switching on defense.

Their Defensive Rating — just 27th after a Feb. 9 loss in Detroit left them 14-12 — improved to 18th in their 34-12 close to the season. Much of that was from doubling down on — and getting used to — their scheme.

Switching 1-through-5 is how Green and James Harden played last year in Houston under current Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni. That’s how an offensive team led by Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving defended the Celtics out of sync, especially with Green and Nic Claxton at center.

“Their switching is kind of disruptive. It throws you off-balance,” Evan Fournier said. “The offense isn’t the same when the guys in front of you have to switch 1-through-5. You can create advantages with pin-downs, pick-and-rolls; but when they switch, it kind of kills everything.”

That’s its purpose, the reason it’s the defense for modern playoff basketball. It’s why the Nets dumped the old-school drop coverage they’d played with the departed Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan, who did not play in Game 1. They lured Boston into bad isolation possessions, especially in the second half. Can they keep doing it?

“Offensively we just got to get the ball popping, moving, especially with them switching 1-through-5. We can’t get stagnant with the ball and get into isolations,” Boston’s Tristan Thompson said. “That can’t be our main offense, because we did that in the second half and it didn’t work.”

After seeing Tatum take advantage of some isolations to score 15 first-half points, Nash made a shrewd adjustment. Blake Griffin didn’t play after Green came on with 4:36 left in the third, and the Nets held Tatum to 0-for-6 in the second half.

“If you look at the numbers, we did a pretty solid job on them. As far as me specifically, [I’m told] just sit down and guard. We had a scheme going, tweaked it a little bit,” Griffin said.

“Blake played well, it’s just trying to share those minutes around,” Nash said. “Nic only played 11; at the end of the game, we had Jeff out there for a longer stretch just because we had a cushion, and his versatility allows you to have some different answers at both ends of the floor.”

Still, Green was a plus-10 in 10:29 fourth-quarter minutes. Claxton logged 4:54, and their ability to switch will be key.

“I take a lot of pride in being able to switch 1-through-5, being able to guard everybody on the floor,” said Green, 34. “No matter how old I get — which people like to toss out there — … I take great value in being able to guard 1-through-5, no matter who is on the court. For me, it’s a great challenge.”

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