Though there are times the Nets can’t get out of their own way on offense, they’ve been among the NBA’s best on the other end of the floor. And Caris LeVert is the heart of that increasingly elite defense that’s going to have to be their path to victory.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. And I feel like myself I’m very capable of that, being the leader of that defensive core,” said LeVert, who has helped the Nets to the league’s third-best defensive rating since December.
“I feel like when people see me locking in on defense, it kind of challenged everybody else to do the same thing. That’s kind of what I try to do out there.”
With Kyrie Irving out for the rest of the season, LeVert has helped lead the Nets to a 5-2 mark since he returned to the lineup. The starters have a stellar 98.6 defensive rating in that resurgence, with Saturday in Charlotte among their best performances yet.
LeVert has been a ballhawk. His six steals Saturday were a career-high and the most by a Net since 2016. And he’s been a glove as well.
After the Hornets’ Devante’ Graham torched the Nets for 40 points in December, LeVert held him to six points on 1-of-10 shooting. And when the Suns’ Devin Booker entered their game against the Nets on Feb. 3 having scored at least 29 points in 11 straight, LeVert held him to just 11 on 3 of 15 from the floor.
“He’s growing there. We have these scouts, and a lot of times they say, ‘Hey, put Caris on Devin Booker, put Caris on Devante’ Graham.’ He’s really improved defensively,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He always plays hard, he always has great activity, but he’s learning the nuances of what it takes to be a great defender in our league.”
Yes, defense is partly athleticism and largely effort, but to be a truly great defender one needs acumen as well. LeVert, in his fourth season, is mastering the subtleties of the cerebral part of defense.
LeVert watches copious film on opponents and their tendencies. He even laughs at the energetic-but-naive defender who came in as a rookie, simply told to hustle and scrap and bring energy.
“Absolutely. Back then it was just play extremely hard, fight over screens, be in the right spot,” LeVert said. “Now it’s more of a thinking game, trying to bait them into doing something that I know they’re going to do, maybe make something look like it’s open and steal it at the last second. It’s more thinking because I kind of know the game a little now.”
Part of that is experience. Part of it is being a sponge and soaking up invaluable information from veterans such as Garrett Temple, DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler.
In Atkinson’s first three years at the helm, Brooklyn has steadily improved in Defensive Rating, from 23rd to 21st to 15th last season. They’re seventh going into Monday’s game versus Orlando, and rising fast as the veterans help LeVert reach his defensive best.
“A lot of credit goes to our vets — Wilson, DeAndre, Garrett Temple — those guys, not only what they do on the court but how they’re teaching our young guys and imparting their knowledge. That’s a big part of it,” Atkinson said.
“We’ve got tough games coming up and a lot of games on the road. But I loved how we put our stamp on [Saturday’s] game. We really never let our foot off the pedal.”
They can ill afford to, least of all on Monday.
The seventh-seeded Nets lead Orlando by 2 ½ games, and host the Magic Monday in a tilt with playoff ramifications, desperate to avoid the eighth seed and a first-round matchup versus NBA-leading Milwaukee.
To reach the playoffs — and have any hope of making any noise if they do — the Nets will need to keep their defense at an elite level. And LeVert leading the way.