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Cam Thomas delivers late as Nets defeat Bucks, 119-115

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a glimpse of the regular season but with just a touch of rust.

In the second preseason game, Brooklyn defeated Milwaukee, 119-115, at Barclays Center. Even though it's the preseason, the Nets ran regular season rotations throughout the contest, sitting the young guys for the majority of the contest but when it came down to a chance to win it, the ball was going in Cam Thomas’ hands.

Thomas — who finished with seven points in eight minutes of play — took advantage of another opportunity and proved no shot is too big for him. After some sloppy moments, Thomas took over when it mattered. With the Nets down by one with a little over a minute left, the 19-year-old created space and drilled a mid-range jumper, then followed 30 seconds later with the dagger, a 27-foot three to put Brooklyn up 115-111.

Brooklyn capitalized on a free throw parade and closed out the game with a win as fans chanted “Brooklyn” for the first time in 2021-22.

Although Brooklyn’s two stars had to shake off rust throughout the contest, Joe Harris was back to his regular-season form, drilling five of six threes to finish with 15 points in 22 minutes of play.

Kevin Durant struggled with his shot but finished with 18 points on 5-of-14 shooting from the field and 2-of-5 from the field. Durant added six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in the 23 minutes of action.

“I felt great. It’s always good to come into Barclays, play in front of our fans and it was good to figure out the rhythm of our team. I felt like my body felt good, my rhythm was good. I rushed some shots that I normally make but overall, I’m good with how everything played out,” Durant said on his performance.

James Harden — who said it felt “very, very weird” to be back on the court — showed the most court rust in his first game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference second round. As the game progressed, Harden gathered himself but finished with a quiet night of eight points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field and 1-of-6 from deep to go with four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 24 minutes. The guard coughed up three turnovers in the win.

“It’s just great to have them get the miles under their legs. They need to play to get a rhythm. That’s what preseason is for. It’s not here to judge them as much to get them out there, get them rolling, conditioning and some chemistry in them,” said Nash on Harden and Durant.

Kyrie Irving, of course, wasn’t in the building, his vaccination status making him ineligible under the city’s COVID-19 regulations.

Post-game, Durant said he hopes that the team will have Irving for more than just practice going forward.

“Yeah, at least he can practice. But we want him here for the whole thing,” Kevin Durant said. “We want him here for games, home games, practices, away games, shootarounds, all of that. Hopefully, we figure this thing out.”

Although the two stars were getting their feet under them, there were other bright spots. Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge played well. Mills contributed 10 points, three assists, two steals and two rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench. Aldridge, who also come off the bench, looked sharp in the preseason win. The Nets veteran recorded 12 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 20 minutes of play, roughly what he averaged last season in five games before retiring.

“He made a few shots but I also just enjoy his intelligence and his experience. His ability to continue to keep the offense moving. We know he can post and we know he can shoot, but his ability to continue to develop the offense. And defensively, he has a feel, experience and understanding that allows him to still defend in the easiest way,” said Nash on Aldridge’s impact.

Jevon Carter provided an all-around spark off the bench with 13 points in 20 minutes. The Nets head coach praised Carter’s ability to shoot the ball — an area of his game Nash wants to see reoccurring.

“We knew he can shoot it. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well. He shot very well throughout camp. He’s very dedicated to his craft. He’s in there every day shooting, so it’s not a surprise to us. We want him to step up and shoot as well as defend but he’s a great offensive player as well,” said Nash on Carter’s performance.

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets went off early offensively. Harris connected on three straight three’s to help the Nets take an early 16-11 advantage. Out of a timeout, the offense really started to click, sparked from the defensive efforts — a big point of emphasis during the five-day training camp in San Diego — to forge a 13-6 run. Brooklyn forced eight turnovers in the first and led Milwaukee by six (32-26) after one quarter in the books.

It was a back and forth second quarter. The Bucks gathered offensive momentum to open the second while the Nets let off the gas a little defensively. Milwaukee targeted the inside offensively. Brooklyn was showing clear signs of rust, highlighted by Harden, who missed four threes and coughed up three turnovers in the first half.

The rust started to shake off but as the second quarter buzzer sounded, Brooklyn hit the break trailing 60-56. Unlike the preseason win over the Lakers, the Nets ran regular rotations with the young guys seeing the action from the bench.

Harris led the team with 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting from three, followed by Durant with 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting from the field and 2-of-4 from three. The bench contributed 27 points, manned by Carter. The guard flipped his defense into offense, translating to eight points in 12 minutes. Brooklyn shot 46.5 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep.

The longest-serving Nets player said he was feeling “good” about his performance. “There’s still a lot of stuff to clean up. At times we played pretty well. Ball was moving, guys were getting clean, really, really good looks.”

Instead of pulling the stars, Nash and the Nets started Harden and Durant, along with Aldridge and Griffin for the start of the third. Brooklyn opened the third on a quick 8-0 run but the Bucks answered with their own 9-0 run, pounding the ball inside with little defense provided.

Then, Nash pulled Harden and Durant with 4:22 remaining in the third, leaving Aldridge out on the floor. The star-studded duo connected on a highlight play, sparked by a key defensive stop.

The defense in the third was a step behind in their efforts in the first, leaving the door open for Milwaukee. The Nets hit the final 12 minutes nursing a flimsy one-point lead (89-88).

Four minutes into the knotted-up game, Nash subbed in the Nets youth corps — Thomas, David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards, Nic Claxton and Devontae Cacok to finish up the contest.

“They’ve been playing extremely well, especially in practice. They listen. They go out there and work their butts off. From top to bottom, they’re showing. They go out there playing unselfish basketball. They’ve been a really good group,” Harden said on the Nets youth.

Although the Bucks rested their core, a sense of the Eastern Conference rivalry was present. To Nash, the two teams have planted the seeds to a foreseeable rivalry. Brooklyn will play the Bucks four times during the 2021-2022 regular season.

“There’s a chance for a rivalry to grow,” said Nash on the Bucks before the game. “After you play in the playoffs, there are some sort of seeds of a rivalry and no matter how the series goes. To have such a close series and them to go on and win the NBA championship and two top teams in the East, that has plenty of legs to develop a rivalry. You’re not going to see much of a rivalry tonight.”

For the Bucks, local product Sandro Mamukelashvili finished with 20 points and 11 boards in front of some Seton Hall teammates. Jordan Nwora led all scorers with 30 points including a 6-of-10 performance from deep.

Film Room

Brooklyn did not look its Sunday best, to put it bluntly, for a majority of Friday’s exhibition game. Handles were flying everyone, dribbles ricocheting off feet. The spacing was off — the Nets at many times ran to the same areas on the floor. At one point, James Harden’s errant pass nearly took out an innocent spectator in the second row.

That said, we got a nice preview of just how fluid this super-stacked Nets team can look. Take, for example, the first possession of the game! Brooklyn opened with a doozy: “Chicago” action, which pairs a pindown screen with a handoff, typically used to generate a three-point look for a sharpshooter.

After a quick “hand back” with Bruce Brown, James Harden drops the ball off to Blake Griffin at the top of the key before spriting to the corner to set a “pindown” screen for Joe Harris. Harris rips off the screen toward Blake Griffin, who hands him the rock and sets a sturdy pick, and Joe does what he does best: An inside-hand one-dribble pull-up. Perfection.

The clip below doesn’t show the full development of this play, but this was perhaps the prettiest halfcourt set of the night. The Nets ran “stagger screens,” which are two screens facing the same direction, for Joe Harris to cut off of while James Harden handled the ball. But wait, hold on! It was a ruse! This was all a simple disguise for what the Nets were actually trying to run — the double-James (yes, we’re calling it that this season) pick-and-roll.

James Johnson received the pocket pass from James Harden, scanned the floor, and found Jevon Carter in the corner. Carter, by the way, has made 46.8% of his corner threes over the past two seasons, so this is something the Nets could certainly continue to tap into with some confidence.

It wasn’t a classic, to be sure, but eager fans at the Barclays got a bite-sized sample of just how special these Nets can be.

Miscellany

Nets drew 12,770 fans to the game, one of the biggest crowds ever for a preseason game. There were some complaints about the transition from Ticketmaster to SeatGeek, but those are likely to be temporary.

Herb Turetzky was at a Nets game for the first time ever Friday night. Turetzky who announced his retirement Thursday sat with his wife and spoke with a parade of well-wishers from fans to former players.

What’s next

The Nets will take the short trip down to Philadelphia to play the Sixers on Monday, Oct. 11. The game will be Brooklyn’s third preseason game.

For a different perspective on Friday’s preseason game, check out Brew Hoop — our sister site covering the Bucks.