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How Nets turned it around to become the NBA’s hottest team



How Nets turned it around to become the NBA's hottest team

The Nets came home Monday after the first 5-0 western trip in team history, part of a league-high six-game winning streak.

It’s a bounce-back for the Nets, who had bottomed out with a humiliating loss in Detroit. From that point — just 14-12 and mired in a three-game losing skid — they’ve become the hottest team in basketball and a favorite to reach the NBA Finals. How did that happen?

They’re figuring out the defense, particularly switching.

Brooklyn has doubled down on that even more since trading for James Harden.

Before Harden’s arrival, the Nets were switching picks 20 percent of the time, 3 percent above the league average. But through his first 14 games post-trade, that vaulted to 33 percent, which would lead the league this season according to Second Spectrum tracking. Going into Sunday’s win at the Clippers, they’d switched a staggering 41 percent of picks on the perfect western swing.

In many ways, it makes sense. Only three teams in the tracking era (since 2013-14) have switched over 40 percent — the Rockets the past three years, led by Harden and coached by current Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni.

“They switch 1-through-5 when Jeff Green is at the 5, and they switch 1-through-4 and drop when DeAndre [Jordan] is in the game. But the matchup that you think they wouldn’t switch, they do switch,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue. “It makes teams stagnant.”

Steve Nash is growing as a coach

Nash, who’d never served as an assistant, has been learning on the job.

He’s kept an upbeat tone but knew when to get on his team in the wake of the loss in Detroit. Despite guard Bruce Brown’s shortcomings as a shooter, Nash has found creative ways to use him as a cutter, screener and 6-foot-2 pseudo-center.

And Nash’s adjustments in Phoenix were impressive. He deployed a zone defense he hasn’t shown all season to help cool off the Suns. Then he pulled Jordan out of his usual drop coverage and had him switch for the first time all season — letting them switch 1-through-5, and daring Deandre Ayton to punish them. It let them rally from a 21-point halftime deficit, the biggest deficit overturned in team history.

The Nets got tough enough

The Nets didn’t have to be the Bad Boy Pistons; they just couldn’t afford to be historically bad, which is exactly how they’d been performing.

“That’s a nonnegotiable step in any team’s aspirations to have that resolve and toughness and connectivity,” said Nash.

In the first 13 games after the Harden trade, the Nets were just 7-6 and dead last in the NBA in defensive rating. But in the winning streak they’ve shown more fortitude on that end, up to 21st. That’s been enough to see their net rating vault from 18th in the league up to fourth.

“Night and day from when I first got here. We’re playing hard now, and we’re playing smart,” said Harden. “The most I’m proud of is our mindset every game, every possession. We don’t take our opponent lightly at all, no matter who we’re playing. It’s the same goal. It’s the same mindset.”

Kevin Durant (left hamstring strain) is out Tuesday. Green (right shoulder contusion) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (right hip contusion) are questionable, while Tyler Johnson (left adductor tightness) and Iman Shumpert (left hamstring strain) are probable.

Harden was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second time since joining the Nets.

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Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic ejected for Flagrant 2 foul in Game 4 vs. Suns



When was Nikola Jokic drafted? How the Nuggets landed the future MVP in a draft day steal

Nikola Jokic’s MVP season may have ended a few minutes earlier than the rest of his Nuggets teammates Sunday night.

The big man was ejected from Game 4 of Denver’s playoff series with Phoenix for a Flagrant 2 foul with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter. Jokic hit Cameron Payne across the face while trying to swat the ball out of Payne’s hands.

MORE: CP3 egged on refs to T up Jokic in Game 3

Officials determined that Jokic met the criteria for a Flagrant 2, deeming the contact “unnecessary and excessive.” The action consisted of “windup, impact and follow-through.”

Before learning his fate, Jokic went nose to nose with Suns guard Devin Booker, who was assessed a technical foul for the encounter. Jokic exited after scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Denver trailed 83-75 at the time as it tried to stave off a sweep attempt by Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals.

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Islanders vs. Lightning: Three takeaways from New York’s Game 1 win



Islanders vs. Lightning: Three takeaways from New York's Game 1 win

It has been a long time since the Islanders and Lightning have faced off in any kind of game, let alone a postseason clash. To be exact, it has been 265 days. That was when they met in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they did not go toe-to-toe in the regular season this year.

And while the score was exactly the same as the final in Game 6 of last year’s battle, the result was different in Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup semifinal series. In this one, the Islanders were the victorious squad, skating away with a 2-1 win.

Here are three takeaways from New York’s Game 1 win:

Mat Barzal delivered

As mentioned in Sporting News’ series preview, Barzal’s play is critical to getting New York into the Stanley Cup Final. The Isles need him to be at his best. He struggled at the start of the playoffs, collecting just three points against the Penguins and going goalless in his first eight games. Then, he flipped the switch and has had six points — three of them goals — in the last six games.

Barzal continued to roll Sunday. He notched the critical first goal with an outracing-the-defender, net-crashing, five-hole effort. After receiving a stretch pass from Josh Bailey, he got past 2021 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman and buried the puck behind netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“I’d say it’s more so, just, I’m actually putting the puck in the net,” Barzal said when asked what has changed in the last few games. “I think my chances throughout the whole season, in the playoffs, are always there. It’s just a matter of beating a goalie. . . . This is the playoffs, so sometimes, in some games we’ve played, I don’t need to get the fifth goal in when we’re up 4-1. So, it’s just a matter of trying to be there for the boys when they need me and just doing the right things.”

Tampa Bay’s power play is lethal

The Lightning entered the semis with a 41.7 percent effectiveness on the power play. 

“Anytime you play a team like Tampa or Boston or anyone with a lethal power play, you don’t want to be in the box all night, ’cause that’s just, you’re just asking for a loss,” Barzal noted.

New York did a good job of playing a hard game while not taking too many penalties — one in the last minute of the middle frame (interference on Kyle Palmieri) that it killed off, and a high-sticking by Brock Nelson with 98 seconds left. Brayden Point did get the Lightning’s lone tally on that last man advantage, which was effectively a 6-on-4 with Vasilevskiy pulled. 

After going 1 for 2 on the power play, the Lightning are now at 42.1 effectiveness. Needless to say, the Islanders need to remain disciplined. 

Game 2 will be interesting

It’s obvious that the Islanders walked into Amalie Arena with a game plan, and they executed it to perfection. Last year in the conference finals, they were blown out 8-2 in Game 1. Things were definitely not the same in this year’s opener. 

“No. 1 is just managing a puck,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said when asked what the keys were Sunday. “Two, we were disciplined. Three, we didn’t take a lot of risk, unnecessary risk. . . . I thought we made pretty good decisions.”

On the Lightning’s bench, Jon Cooper was anything but happy with his team’s decision-making. 

“Our work ethic was there, our compete was there, our minds weren’t there,” he said. “Some of our decisions were poor. That’s what happens when you get this deep into the playoffs. There are only four teams left and you have to have everything working in unison. We just weren’t quite there tonight.”

New York did a good job of keeping the Lightning away from the front of the net as goalie Semyon Varlamov only faced three high-danger shots at 5v5 and stopped 8 of 9 overall (per Natural Stat Trick). Varlamov made 30 saves while Vasilevskiy turned aside 29 shots.

There’s nothing more the Islanders would like than going wheels up back to New York with a 2-0 series lead, but there’s a reason the Lightning are the defending Cup champions. While this may be the first time it has trailed in a series in 2021, Tampa Bay has a skilled squad that will not go quietly into the night.

“We knew it was going to be extremely tough,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve been in this position before, so there’s definitely no panic in this room. But we do realize that it’s going to be an extremely tight series and we just have to expect that going forward.”

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Glen Davis implies Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury a result of Celtics basketball karma



Glen Davis implies Kyrie Irving's ankle injury a result of Celtics basketball karma

Glen Davis clearly believes in basketball karma.

Nets guard Kyrie Irving exited Sunday’s playoff game vs. the Bucks after spraining his right ankle. Irving would later be ruled out of the game with the injury. The Nets would fall to the Bucks in Game 4 107-96, sending the Eastern Conference semifinal series back to Barclays Center even at 2-2. 

Davis, a member of the Celtics’ 2008 championship-winning squad, had some thoughts on the injury. In an Instagram reply, Davis seemed to imply that it was a result of basketball karma after Irving stomped on Boston’s center court logo earlier in the playoffs.

“Karma is real. Energy is real no matter what you guys say,” Davis said in another IG comment. “That logo means something negative or positive. Ky wished that on hisself (sic). Energy is real, always have respect for other no matter if its (sic) a logo are (sic) not.”

MORE: Kyrie crossover sends Thanasis into another galaxy 

After the Nets’ Game 4 victory over the Celtics in the first round, Irving greeted teammates at center court and stomped on the drawing of Lucky the Leprechaun, the team’s mascot. A fan was ejected from TD Garden, arrested and charged with felony assault for allegedly throwing a water bottle at Irving following the stomp.

Davis’ comments are pretty baseless, all things considered. Karma isn’t a tangible effect, after all. What is tangible is that the Nets and Bucks head back to Brooklyn with the series tied and both Irving and James Harden’s status for Game 5 uncertain.

By the way, it wasn’t the same ankle that stomped on Lucky, just to fact check. That was Irving’s left one. The injury was to Irving’s right one.

Think before you comment, folks.

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