Memphis battered the Nets as if it had Monstar talent from Space Jam. Ja Morant, as he so often does, welcomed the challenge of playing a top team in the NBA, leading the way for the Grizzlies by scoring 36 points. Most Improved Player candidate Desmond Bane added 29 of his own.
But while Memphis’ backcourt put up big scoring numbers, the Grizzlies did far more damage in the trenches. In so doing, they highlighted a critical flaw that could doom the Nets’ NBA title hopes.
The Grizzlies decimated the Nets on the boards
The Grizzlies didn’t just win the rebounding battle against the Nets. They nearly doubled Brooklyn’s output on the boards.
Memphis outrebounded Brooklyn 61-33 for the contest. The bigs hunted misses, with Steven Adams grabbing seven offensive rebounds and Brandon Clarke pulling down four of his own. The Grizzlies finished the game with 23 offensive rebounds and scored 18 second-chance points in the first half alone.
Meanwhile, the Nets looked powerless on the glass. Nic Claxton had just three rebounds. Kevin Durant pulled down just three boards as well. Brooklyn hardly displayed any fight underneath the basket, with Memphis also outscoring the Nets 62-52 in the paint.
It was an apathetic showing, and probably not one Nets fans expected after Kevin Durant ripped into his teammates following a loss against the Los Angeles Clippers. The performance once again illustrated potential concerns for Brooklyn.
Are the Nets lacking in physicality and mental toughness?
Contrary to what Monday night’s game might suggest, the Nets have made strides both in terms of rebounding and defense.
Brooklyn ranked 23rd in defensive rating last season. It ranks sixth in that category in 2021-22 and has given up over six fewer points per 100 possessions. The Nets are also averaging a full rebound more per game and clear the defensive glass, which is a good sign considering they rank second in defensive field-goal percentage.
Still, the past two losses point to a lack of heart and resolve.
The Nets led by seven points entering the fourth quarter of their New Year’s Day matchup with LA. The Clippers took it right to Brooklyn in the final period, getting into the paint and earning 15 free-throw attempts. Mind you, this was a depleted LA roster, but it showed little hesitancy repeatedly attacking Brooklyn’s defense.
The Grizzlies loss called physicality and toughness into question to a far greater extent. Memphis relentlessly attacked the rim. Adams threw his weight around at will. The Nets did not hold a lead for the entirety of the game and came out of the second half totally flat, getting outscored 40-26 in the period and conceding six more offensive boards.
Brooklyn has ample skill. Though he played poorly on Monday, James Harden shows continued signs of building off his terrific performances during the Nets’ swing through LA. Kyrie Irving is on the verge of making his return.
However, the talent becomes moot when it isn’t matched with a sense of fight and desire.
Looking to the trade market
The Nets do not have a ton of cap space to work with ahead of the February trade deadline. Still, they would do well to pursue targets capable of reinvigorating the team with effort and toughness.
Larry Nance Jr. is likely to be on many teams’ radars, and he could infuse the Nets with some two-way grit and hustle. Fellow Portland Tail Blazer Robert Covington is another player to monitor if Brooklyn can match salaries. Other options are out there — maybe a wing player like Danuel House or low-cost addition such as Torrey Craig. Regardless, the Nets figure to pursue veteran upgrades if possible.
A blowout loss to the Grizzlies has highlighted potential weaknesses in Brooklyn’s championship pursuit. How will the Nets remedy the situation and provide more from an intangible perspective?
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.