Nets’ strong ball movement led to Game 2 offensive show

The Nets just saved the vocal cords of every basketball coach at every level who is tired of yelling, “Make the extra pass!”

Replace those unheard words by showing the tape of Game 2 of the Nets-Celtics playoffs series, when three of the NBA’s best one-on-one players reminded everyone how much easier offense can be — and how much prettier it looks — when sharing the ball.

“Whenever the ball moves we’re very difficult to defend,” coach Steve Nash said. “We can score in isolation, but the more the ball moves, we knock the first domino down and then the teams chase and we’re excellent in those situations.”

The Nets made 296 passes in Game 2 compared to 240 in Game 1. What’s the difference created by 56 extra passes? They jumped from 44 points off of 18 assists to 83 points off of 31 assists, with Joe Harris benefiting to the tune of eight mostly uncontested 3-pointers.

“It seemed like in the Game 1, I had a tendency to creep over to the ball, bringing my defender and not allowing one of the three guys at least enough space to operate,” Harris said. “So a lot of it was just talking about getting even with the foul-line extended, and just trying to play in that area.”

Joe Harris was a big beneficiary of the Nets' ball movement in their Game 2 blowout win.
Joe Harris was a big beneficiary of the Nets’ ball movement in their Game 2 blowout win.
Corey Sipkin

James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant notched seven, six and five assists, respectively. Seven different players in all set up at least two baskets.

“It was pretty obvious we went into Game 1 with the idea we have to do the best we can on the three guys but limit everyone else and limit the ball movement and the flow of the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We weren’t able to do that [in Game 2]. We have to make it a game where we are guarding more on a string as a team and not overreacting to the individual play.”

The Nets will look to take a 3-0 series lead Friday in Boston.

“We know in Boston it’s going to be way tougher to score,” Durant said.

The fear when Harden teamed up with Irving and Durant after a January trade was that the ball might get stagnant with too many players used to operating in isolation. Blake Griffin joined the mix later on, giving the Nets four of the top 21 players in touches per game during the 2019 playoffs — the last time all four were in the postseason at the same time, for four different teams.

Harden averaged 6.8 seconds and 6.3 dribbles per touch — behind only the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard — back then. He is averaging 63.5 passes per game, up from 47.7 as the Rockets’ go-to scorer. Unselfishness is contagious.

“It’s just staying disciplined on that end when myself, [Durant,] James or anybody is iso-ing,” Irving said. “Our spacing is important. A lot of teams are going to collapse [the defense] when we drive. So, we just got to be ready to make plays off the ball and be ready to shoot it or be ready to cut. Just simplify the game for one another [by] adjusting on the fly and making basketball reads.”

Let Celtics guard Evan Fournier explain the particulars.

“They obviously saw how we were guarding them in Game 1 … and they made some adjustments with the slips,” Fournier said. “They kind of put us in spots where it’s a gray area. It’s not a clear switch. And that’s what led to having them swing the ball more freely, having more space to play.”

When the help-defense scramble is on, it’s already too late.

“Just guarding the guys one-on-one, that’s what we want,” Fournier said, “because once you start the rotation with all the blitzing and stuff, you’re dead.”

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