When Steve Nash was hired to coach the Brooklyn Nets superteam entry last year, it was both shocking and controversial.
Judgment on the hire is still a ways off, but Nash's first postseason on the sideline has been impressive. Nash has run circles early around two-time NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer in what was supposed to be a highly competitive Eastern Conference playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Brooklyn is ahead 2-0 after a 125-86 spanking in Monday's Game 2.
The first two contests were at home, and Nash has talent on his side; Kevin Durant's 32 points on 18 shots in Game 2 would make any coach look good. But Nash is managing and motivating his team expertly, especially in the wake of losing James Harden indefinitely with a hamstring injury, an advantage the Bucks wasted.
Even when he had Harden in the mix, Nash explained how important shot numbers were against the Bucks. In the three regular-season meetings between the teams, Milwaukee got up 37 more shots. Even with an offense as impressive as the Nets have, that's not a survivable margin.
That shot disparity existed because the Nets turned the ball over 19 more times than the Bucks and allowed Milwaukee to have 10 more offensive rebounds in those games. So, coming into this second-round series, Nash emphasized ball security and awareness on the defensive glass.
Two games in, it's the Nets who have taken seven more shots and committed 14 fewer turnovers. After the Bucks clobbered Brooklyn 20-4 in second-chance points in Game 1, the Nets flipped that vital number in Game 2, 15-11.
Brooklyn also executed the textbook defensive plan on Giannis Antetokounmpo, backing off to entice him to take outside shots and baiting him into charges when he came into the lane. The Nets aren't getting the charges, but the contact seems to be making Antetokounmpo more cautious; he is just 2-of-10 at the foul line in the series.
As a result, Antetokounmpo attempted just 15 shots and scored only 18 points in Game 2, a major win for the Nets.
But perhaps more important than any strategy, Nash had his team focused and ready to play in Game 2 without Harden, just as the coach did after Harden exited in the first minute of Game 1, when Nash implored the players not to feel sorry for themselves. Brooklyn overwhelmed Milwaukee in a lopsided first quarter Monday night.
Several Nets players, including Durant, mentioned the level of detail in the game plan after the victory.
"Our guys were prepared and hungry," Nash said. "Guys are just locked in and aware of the game plan and can take care of details."
The same has not been the case for Milwaukee. Budenholzer has been scrutinized for the Bucks' struggles to get out of the second round the past two years, and more criticism is surely coming if there isn't a rally.
Throughout the season, Budenholzer employed some varied defensive strategies aimed at preparing for the playoffs, something he hadn't done in the past. One of them was switching on pick-and-rolls, which he typically doesn't favor.
Budenholzer avoided it in his scheme in Game 2. Worried about how the Nets might attack big man Brook Lopez in screen-roll actions, Budenholzer had the Bucks play zone in the first quarter. The Nets handled that, with Durant, Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris nailing shots over the top of the zone.
After scoring a playoff team record 72 points in the paint against Brooklyn's soft interior in Game 1, Milwaukee's attack was stuck on the outside in Game 2. The Bucks -- regressing to isolation basketball on the perimeter, devoid of passing and driving-and-kicking action -- attempted 21 fewer shots in the paint and scored 20 fewer points.
Defensively, the Bucks also were lethargic. It showed in a glaring trend as they went more than 36 minutes of game time without committing a shooting foul -- an indication of how nonphysical their defense played in such a critical game. The Nets took their first free throws outside of the first quarter when Bucks third-stringer Mamadi Diakite committed a flagrant foul in frustration during garbage time.
"The schemes and the coverage, it matters, but they're taking advantage of opportunities, and they're playing well," Budenholzer said. "We've all seen it 1,000 times; we've got to protect our home court like they've protected theirs. If you've been in the league a long time, you've seen this before."
The league has actually seen it 322 times; that's how often a team has fallen behind 2-0 in seven-game series. Only 22 times have those teams come back to win. Over the past five years, there have been a number of 3-1 comebacks in the NBA; but the truth is, those comebacks are only slightly more rare (15 times in 251 series) than winning four of the next five. The LA Clippers just accomplished this after being down 2-0 against the Dallas Mavericks in the previous round.
And to say that the Nets "did what they're supposed to do" is a little too simplistic.
As with every series, there are many things contributing to the rising tide. It's not just Durant and Irving scoring and Nash hitting all the right buttons. The Nets are getting strong play from role players; as well; Brooklyn's bench is up 62-43 on Milwaukee's through two games.
But Budenholzer is going to have to start winning some categories on his rookie counterpart or things could quickly get uncomfortable for him.
"In the locker room, there's a lot of great leadership," Budenholzer said. "The guys will respond appropriately."