CHARLOTTE — Dorian Finney-Smith laid out the lofty goals for the Nets’ defense earlier this month. Accept the challenge to hold teams under 100 points.
It’s a high bar since no team has done that over a full season since 2017-18. Two games in, the Nets aren’t anywhere close to it after giving up 114 and 125 points to start the season.
“It's a little different, because we're trying some different things schematically. But we figuring it out, though,” Dennis Smith Jr. said. “We're figuring it out, we’re doing better, we stopped with all the 30-point quarters every game. So you know, making some progress.”
The Nets gave up 37 points in the first quarter against Cleveland but held them under 30 in the each of the next three periods. With the Mavericks, it was the reverse, holding them to 26 in the first quarter but allowing more over the next three, capped by a 37-point fourth quarter.
Defense was going to always be a work in progress despite coach Jacque Vaughn preaching it as a main part of his team's identity. Ben Simmons noted that some of the schemes were even new to veterans so it would take time to grasp them when the season started.
“We’ve got guys that come from different systems, so it's a different defense than we’re used to playing,” Royce O’Neale said. “So I mean, we're not going to be perfect in two games. So I think just as games go on, keep learning more situations that we are going to get better at, and we're going to help each other out.”
A common thread in both games were All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic scoring a lot. It’s something that also makes the next six games after Monday’s date with the Hornets troubling as all six opponents aren’t just playoff teams - they have All-Star level scorers.
On Wednesday, they face Jimmy Butler and the Heat. Friday comes the Bulls and Zach LaVine, who just had a 51-point game. The next night, it’s the Celtics at home with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Next Monday? Just Giannis Antetokounmpo and new teammate Damian Lillard with the Bucks. The Nets face the Celtics again next Friday after hosting the Clippers with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
“That's probably why I've been on them so much and I'm going to continue to be on them,” Vaughn said. "The ability to put yourself in a position to win, learn extremely fast if you lose those games, it’s crucial to this trip.”
Part of the issue is also giving up too many threes. The Nets have given up 32 three-pointers in two games and the Mavericks and Cavaliers combined to shoot 40.5% from long range. The Mavericks’ final four field goals against the Nets Friday? All three-pointers from Doncic.
Mitchell’s eventual game-winner was also a long range shot after he broke free from Cam Johnson.
It’s part of the “on the job” training as Vaughn calls it with a team still developing chemistry. But with the schedule getting tougher, there’s less time to wait and figure it out at the risk of being at the bottom of the standingsi.
For defense-first to be the Nets identity, the players know it has been tightened up even if they can’t meet the challenge of holding teams under 100 points.
"Just communicating. I think that's a priority with every team is the ability to communicate and really understand our concepts,” Lonnie Walker IV said. “And if we don't understand, ask the coaches and ask the assistant coaches. That's what allows us to grow. We're all in this together. So we got to find ways to be a team, be a family and just be us.”