You could say the Nets — currently 4-8 and without their starting point guard, Jeremy Lin, due to a hamstring injury — are playing above their heads right now, and you’d probably be right. It took Brooklyn eight games last season to finally garner a win; this season, it took two.
But, imagine how much better things would be if the Nets played decent basketball for all four quarters, instead of just three. Brooklyn is being outscored by over six points in third quarters so far this season, and the Nets’ woeful play after halftime is what’s preventing them from having a few more wins.
The third quarter has been a problematic one for the Nets for years, going back to the 2006-07 season, the last one in which the team had a positive +/- in the frame for an entire year. Last season, Brooklyn was outscored by an average of 2.1 points per third quarter and this season, that deficit has more than tripled in size.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the third quarter struggles have been magnified in Nets’ losses. In the eight third quarters of Brooklyn defeats, the opponent has won the period by over seven points per contest. Even in wins, the Nets still lose the quarter by a significant margin.
These numbers are pretty bad, but even the Nets aren’t the worst third quarter team in the NBA (that belongs to the Timberwolves, who lose their third quarters by 8.4 points). When the Nets beat Minnesota last week, Brooklyn outscored Tom Thibodeau’s team by a margin of three points.
Okay, so two of the NBA’s younger teams play horribly right after halftime, that might make sense. Maybe it’s a result of poor halftime warmups or even a sense of complacency after a particularly strong first half. That would be hard to quantify, so let’s try to find another reason.
Brooklyn is slashing 44.4%/32.8%/80.9% offensively as of Friday’s Thunder game which — outside of the free-throw shooting, one of the best marks in the NBA — makes the Nets just below average in the league in terms of field goal and three-point shooting.
But when you look at the third quarter alone, the Nets are second-worst in field goal percentage (38.5 percent, only above Minnesota) and second-worst in three-point shooting (25.5 percent, only above New Orleans). Even their free throw shooting, which is one of the team’s better attributes, dips to under 75 percent (fourth-worst).
An interesting aspect of this is that the Nets take more shots in the third quarter (21.8) than they do in any other quarter. As you might expect, this has pushed Brooklyn’s pace to a league-high 105.53 possessions in the frame. Considering the Nets’ net rating is -24.1 in that part of the game, maybe the ineffectiveness offensively is due to the team putting up too many shots.
Kenny Atkinson has clearly established his Nets as an up-tempo team, and that has certainly helped his group play inspired basketball through 12 games, but is it possible that too fast a pace actually hurts Brooklyn?
Probably, in fact. The Nets’ best quarters are the second and fourth, both frames in which Brooklyn’s pace is under 104. Brooklyn’s pace in the first quarter — when the Nets’ net rating is -5.8 — is even higher than it is in the third, at 105.99 possessions.
So the Nets, coming out of halftime, essentially try to replicate their super-fast-pace strategy from the first quarter, but don’t make enough shots in the third quarter for that to be a viable plan. They’re using less of the shot clock and settling for quicker shots, which has worked to a degree earlier in games but not as much a half in.
However, defense is also a factor in Brooklyn’s chronic third quarter struggles. Due to their higher pace, the Nets’ opponents also get to take a lot of shots too. Unsurprisingly, the Nets lead the league in opponent field goals attempted with 91.6 per game, with the Pelicans allowed the second-most at under 90 attempts. As the Nets use more possessions, their opponents do as well.
When looking at the third quarter specifically, Brooklyn allows over 22 field goal attempts per frame, another league-high. On those attempts, the Nets’ opponents shoot over 51 percent from the field. In all their other third quarters during the season — against other teams — those same opponents only shoot 45.7 percent from the field.
What does that tell us exactly? Well, it means that in the third quarter of games, Nets opponents shoot an NBA-high 5.7 percent better against the Nets than they do against all other opponents. That’s a stark differential and is a pretty clear indicator of Brooklyn’s defense being much weaker right after the half.
For reference, Nets’ opponents shoot worse than average in the first and fourth quarters, and barely above average in the second.
On a deeper level, using the NBA.com/stats page, we can spot the specific area in which Brooklyn’s defense struggles in third quarters: at the rim. The Nets’ opposition converts on 73.5 percent on shots from six feet or less in the quarter. As expected, that’s the highest percentage in the NBA, and it’s a ridiculous 11.5 percent better than those same opponents do in third quarters against all other teams.
When you allow your opponents to shoot well from the field, especially on shots in the paint and around the paint, it’s extremely hard to win basketball games. But when, in one-fourth of every game, that opponent does even better than it usually does against any other team, it indicates a clear problem that needs to be solved.
It’s easy to take less shots and slow the game down offensively, but it’s pretty hard to just play better defense on the fly. Obviously, that end of the floor is going to be a problem all season, but the Nets aren’t going to be able to compete in many games if they keep getting dominated in one quarter and are fine in the others. And when the major issue is rim defense, the third quarter troubles aren’t going to go away.