Nets need consistent defensive stops as new season storyline


Mikal Bridges’ scoring exploits Saturday were the story of the night.

Now the Nets need that defensive display to be the story of their season.

“Yeah, I wish we could replicate that on a nightly basis, and that’s our challenge,” said coach Jacque Vaughn, who’ll get a chance to test that Wednesday at high-powered Atlanta. “We’re able to turn people over, control the rebound. … That allows us to run, that allows us to maximize an offense that’s been playing pretty well, Top 10 in the league. So give our guys credit for understanding our formula.

“But being able to replicate it every single night has been the challenge. Defensively, the consistency hasn’t been there. Part of that is consistent lineups, which could change again. That’s just where we are as a team.”

Having one of the most injury-riddled rosters in the league put the Nets 22nd in Defensive Rating entering Saturday’s game.

But after showing little grit in Thursday’s loss to sorry Charlotte, they came out and put their will on Orlando in a defensive performance that was — situation and opponent considered — their best of the year.

“Yeah, overall mentality of hitting first,” Vaughn said. “Just physicality, want to get ahead and outwork somebody. And we had that on our mind from the beginning of the game.”

Royce O'Neale tries to steal the ball during the first half when the Brooklyn Nets played the Orlando Magic.
Royce O’Neale tries to steal the ball during the first half when the Brooklyn Nets played the Orlando Magic. Robert Sabo for NY Post

The same Nets that allowed 73 first-half points in a loss to the Hornets dominated a Magic team that had won nine straight.

Even playing small without injured power forward Dorian Finney-Smith, they used an array of half-court man, zones, three-quarter court pressure and other defenses.

Brooklyn protected the rim and came away with a 129-101 rout.

“We threw a few defenses out there and went back-and-forth and tried to get them thinking a little, slowing them down so we can keep them out of the paint,” Vaughn said.

“Being in zone, toggling back-and-forth with zone and man, and some full-court, three-quarters stuff really got our activity level high. That was what we were hoping for, especially starting small the way we did. That gave us some good dividends.”

The dividends were better than could’ve been expected.

Yes, Orlando still got into the paint.

But the Nets forced a stunning 14 misses in the restricted area and 3 of 14 shooting in the rest of the paint [league percentage is 43.9].

Brooklyn’s seven blocks helped, with Bridges having three, to go with his 42 points on the other end.

Seeing their star defending like that had a trickle-down effect.

“I think so. It’s like it’s not football where you can just play wideout. You’ve got to guard, too. And he’s been one of the leaders for that since he came into the league of being a two-way guy,” Dennis Smith Jr. said of Bridges’ defense. “His offensive game really took it to super elite. So he’s doing the things that really separate guys from being good and being great.”

Smith Jr.’s own return from injury was key on that end.

The smallest Net on the court — who descried himself as “savage” — fought his way to a game-high 11 rebounds. The Nets dominated, 57-36, on the glass.

Mikal Bridges #1 of the Brooklyn Nets drives the basket during the first half.
Mikal Bridges #1 of the Brooklyn Nets drives the basket during the first half. Robert Sabo for NY Post

“Just our physicality to start the game off, started on the defensive end. Good things happen on offense when you play good defense, so that’s really the key was to be more physical,” said Cam Thomas. “So it was just, staying locked in every possession and keep it going. So that’s really what the key was during the week.”

And will be key this week.

Wednesday they play at the potent Hawks, against whom they conceded a season-high 147 points Nov. 22.

“There’s a standard that I want these guys to be able to play with on a nightly basis, no matter who’s playing. So that was my frustration the other night,” Vaughn said. “We’ll play with a standard, and that standard is on both ends of the floor.”

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