DENVER — The Nets can read the schedule, and they understood the difficulty of the back-to-back games they faced, starting with the Nuggets (9-2) on Friday night at Pepsi Center followed by the defending champion Warriors (10-2) on Saturday at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
But the Nets (5-6) sense they are learning the formula that will allow them to compete consistently well against the NBA’s top teams. The evidence was there in two straight wins, by 25 points over the 76ers and by 22 over the Suns. They played a more physical brand of defense against both opponents, held each below 100 points and forced each to commit at least 20 turnovers, a remarkable turnaround for a team that ranked 30th in forcing turnovers last season.
Describing the impact of the Nets’ win in Phoenix on Tuesday to start a four-game trip that ends Monday in Minneapolis, Caris LeVert said: “It’s big for us, because we know we’ve got Denver and Golden State coming up, two teams that are really hot right now. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to go in there and get a win, a tough win on the road for sure.”
LeVert, who is an emerging offensive star averaging 20.5 points, also has played a huge role on defense. In Phoenix, he and backup guard Spencer Dinwiddie were a tag team that held Suns star Devin Booker to 20 points, five below his average, and 6-for-21 shooting.
“I thought they both were excellent,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Caris was superb on both ends. Spencer came on in relief. That’s tough when you have two 6-6, 6-7 guys who can defend the ball like that. It’s a huge advantage for us.”
Explaining the strategy involved in containing Booker, LeVert said: “Just making every catch tough, every shot tough, that definitely takes a lot out of you. Everything was contested when he did take shots. That’s what it’s going to take. It wasn’t just one person guarding him; it was the full team.”
Another critical aspect of the Nets’ defensive approach involves the guards helping the big men rebound, especially on the defensive boards. LeVert, D’Angelo Russell, Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe each had at least five rebounds and totaled 23 against the Suns.
“We’ve done film presentations and analytic presentations to get them to understand how important it is,” Atkinson said of his emphasis on rebounding. “Our effective field-goal percentage defense is top 10 in the league.
Teams don’t shoot well against us. That’s the truth right now. We’ve really got to plug that rebounding thing. That’s huge.”
Starting center Jarrett Allen has improved his rebounding to go with his high-caliber shot-blocking, and backup center Ed Davis is one of the NBA’s most efficient rebounders.
Davis called LeVert “a hell of a defender” and said he likes the defensive improvement he’s seen from the whole team.
“It’s not just playing hard, it’s playing smart, too, making the right plays on offense and defense,” Davis said, noting that everyone has adjusted to rules changes that allow more freedom of movement. “But this team plays hard, and the physicality level is turned up a notch.”
The biggest eye-opener for the Nets has been their ability to force far more turnovers, which ignites their transition offense.
“I’d love that to be our identity a little bit with the speed and youth,” Atkinson said. “We’re stronger physically, and I think we trust our back line. We trust Jarrett Allen, we trust Ed Davis to protect the rim. That allows us to be a little more aggressive.”