The making of a defensive breakthrough for the Brooklyn Nets

A trio of Nets pressure the ball on the perimeter. (NBA.com)
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After all the pre-season attention the Nets got after their move to Brooklyn, the dropoff has been considerable, thanks mostly to the spectacular early-season run of the Knicks.

And yet, after a 102-97 victory Thursday night over the Boston Celtics, the Nets have started the season about as well as they possibly could have hoped.

They are 5-2, a record as good as any team in the Eastern Conference, with the exception of the still-undefeated Knicks. They're ranked fifth in the league in offensive efficiency, which is quite good, and they are 21st in defensive efficiency, which isn't.

Against Boston, however, the Nets showed signs of improving the performance of their lagging defense.

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The Celtics, though in an unfamiliar arena, did their Celtics thing, rallying from a 59-50 halftime deficit to take a 79-74 lead after three quarters. Through three quarters, they were shooting just under 51 percent from the field, 5-for-9 from three-point range, and scoring with an ease familiar to the Nets' prior opponents, with the exception of the Magic, who can't score against anybody.

But in the fourth quarter, encouraged by an excited Barclays Arena crowd, the Nets clamped down defensively. Shots were contested. No one, other than Kevin Garnett, scored much. Garnett was 4-for-6 from the field, taking advantage of the limitations Brook Lopez has on the defensive end. (The Nets were actually making offense/defense switches with Lopez late in the game, a peculiar hardship for a max contract player at the center of the team's attack.)

Even so, Garnett's teammates shot just 3-for14, and overall, the Celtics shot 35 percent in the fourth quarter and scored 18 points.

The result was the kind of victory that can make the league take some notice of the Nets. And it is worth remembering that if the Nets hadn't lost at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team they led 71-49 in the third quarter, the Nets would be 6-1, just a half-game behind the Knicks.

Still, skeptics will point out that the Nets beat a Celtics team missing point guard Rajon Rondo. They won despite giving Garnett free rein down the stretch, and eager opponents will either maximize their interior opportunities to score easy baskets late against Lopez inside, or force Lopez from the game to limit what the Nets can do on the offensive end.

It is unlikely that the Nets will become an elite defensive team, or even that they will regularly put together the kind of fourth quarters they did on Thursday night. But they did so despite Garnett and a Celtics team skilled in finding, and exploiting, defensive weaknesses.

Before the game, Nets coach Avery Johnson described the need to reach a new level of play.

“Sure, we’ve had some wins,” Johnson said. “We need breakthroughs.”

The Nets will show in the coming weeks if Thursday night was a breakthrough, or a fluke against a shorthanded team. It certainly was a first.