Nets’ Cam Johnson believes their league-2nd worst defense will improve over time

Cam Johnson, Brooklyn Nets
Mar 1, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Cameron Johnson (2) controls the ball against New York Knicks guard Josh Hart (3) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Johnson had his best offensive game in a Nets uniform, but Brooklyn was at the receiving end of a brutal 142-118 loss at the hands of their crosstown rival New York Knicks Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Johnson hit 7 of 11 from downtown to pace the Nets with a season-high 33 points. But it left a bitter taste in the mouth with the way they have been losing lately.

They’ve only won once since Johnson and Mikal Bridges joined the team after the trade deadline. Four of their six losses during that span were blowouts, including a 44-point beating in Chicago last Friday.

On paper, the Nets have the length and defensive versatility to compete. GM Sean Marks targeted defensive wings in the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trades.

Bridges and Johnson were solid 3-and-D guys at Phoenix. Dorian Finney-Smith was Dallas’ best defender.

But to the surprise of everyone, Johnson included, the Nets have turned into one of the worst defensive teams in the league since the trade deadline.

“It is [surprising] especially [Philadelphia] barely got to 100 points in our first game, and there have been some regressions, statistically,” Johnson said. “Some of these teams are just hitting shots, and sometimes you gotta give credit to them.”

During Johnson and Bridges’ team debut, the 76ers barely beat the Nets, 101-98. Then they lost the following game to the Knicks, 124-106. But they bounced back with a resounding 116-105 win over Miami Heat just before the All-Star break.

After the break, their horror started with a 44-beatdown against the Bulls.

The Nets have allowed 124.3 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst defensive rating in the league since Johnson and Bridges joined the team seven games ago.

Teams have routinely blown them out of the gates or methodically worn them down.

“That’s when you got to step in and be like, what kind of shots are they hitting? And how can we make them take different shots? How can we make them do things that are a little more uncomfortable for them,” Johnson asked. “But yeah, it’s not something that sits well with our group because we know we should be at the very minimum, very good, you know, at the top half of the [best] NBA defensive teams.”

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn rued their lack of defensive effort Wednesday night against the Knicks that at halftime, he asked the team if giving up 81 points hurt them.

“We’re competitors so there is an element of suck to it, where it’s just like ‘Man, we don’t want to go out and lose ever as everybody feels it,” Johnson said.

“Everybody feels it deep [inside], we’re sitting on the bench and you can feel there that unsettling feeling because we want to be better because we know we can be better because we know we have the talent in our room to be better.”

Johnson couldn’t pinpoint exactly what they needed to improve.

“It’s a little bit of everything, and sometimes these things are hard to verbalize them in just a couple sentences here,” Johnson said. “We got to go back, dig into the film, see exactly what is going on. See exactly where rotations need to be. And like I said, when those become second nature, the defense will look different.”

With 20 games remaining, the Nets are barely clinging to the sixth seed with the Miami Heat only 1 1/2 game behind them. But Johnson isn’t losing hope despite the demoralizing string of blowout losses.

“I know that it’s tough. I know it’s been a lot of points we’ve allowed these last couple of games, but I still believe in this group,” said Johnson, who added he enjoys playing with his new team.

“I still think we have the talent. I still think we have the defensive capabilities to be where we need to be, and I speak for myself, but I also think I speak for the whole team, and we’re going to take this thing head-on and continue to work to be where we got to be.”

Their demanding remaining schedule doesn’t afford them the luxury of time to experiment. They need to come together as quickly as possible, as nine of their next 12 games are against teams with winning records, starting with the Boston Celtics on Friday.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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