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UNLIKELY HEROES: James Johnson and Cam Thomas are earning it

Their means are quite different, but the ends are similar.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A recurring theme of the first (and maybe only?) season of the “Big Three” Era in Brooklyn was “one ball”. It was the most common refrain detractors used to question how successful those Nets would be. Not more valid concerns about the interior defense or rebounding, but rather, Brooklyn’s ability to share the ball with three offensive superstars on the court.

Those issues were quickly, easily, and predictably blown out of the water before the playoffs even rolled around. Some of the best offensive possessions of the season, across the entire NBA, came courtesy of Brooklyn’s unstoppable ball movement. And oh yeah, when the game slowed down, one of their three mercenaries was going to have a good matchup. Major injuries to two-thirds of their Big Three was the only way to slow them down.

This season has been a total 180º. Without Kyrie Irving, the Nets’ steel trident is mangled. Joe Harris going down with an injury has only magnified the main concern with a Nets team that’s completely flipped their identity so far this season, something that would’ve recently been laughable to imagine: Brooklyn has been lacking offensive creation, small recent sample aside.

James Harden having a rollercoaster of a season thus far isn’t helping said issue either. But other than he and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn’s rotation hasn’t featured players capable of consistently putting the ball on the floor, and making good things happen. Enter, James Johnson and Cam Thomas (imagine reading that introduction over the summer).

James Johnson

...decided the latest installment of the 2-Train rivalry with a pair of game-winning free throws. On the final possession, Durant, doubled at the top of the key, hit Johnson, who immediately attacked the rim and drew a shooting foul. The play was a microcosm of what Johnson has brought to the Nets since entering the rotation in recent weeks. He, more than any other Nets wing/big, is a capable ball-handler and decision-maker. And like the final possession vs. the Knicks, it doesn’t always look pretty. His age can show; he doesn’t quite elevate like he used to. But for a team that needs players to get the ball from point A to point B, it works.

Blake Griffin, with perhaps an even more than an inability to throw a rock into the ocean off a boat, hampered the Nets offense with indecisiveness and sluggishness. I don’t even need to use a clip; any Nets fan can picture it: Griffin catches the ball on the perimeter, thinks about shooting a three, doesn’t, dribbles around for a few seconds, and eventually finds a release valve in one of the stars. Five seconds have come off the clock, and the possession has gotten no further. To be fair to Griffin, that hasn’t solely been his issue. Even the wonderful Patty Mills hasn’t showcased much of an off-the-dribble game when run off the line. Bruce Brown is essentially a non-ball-handler at this point, and DeAndre’ Bembry is marginally better.

It’s James Johnson who’s been getting places. It hasn’t been complicated stuff either. Both of these drives are under control and end in solid looks for Brooklyn, particularly the fake hand-off that, although quite simple, is not a read many Nets have shown to be capable of making thus far:

There is just a certain energy and spryness Johnson brings with the ball in his hands. His ability to be a connective tissue for the Nets offense has made it flow much more smoothly than with him on the bench. It goes beyond quantifiable play-types and lineup combinations. Is he an explosive roll-man who James Harden can throw sky-high lobs to? No. But should he find himself on the short roll, you can trust things will work out okay. How many other Nets are capable of not bowling over the help defender here, and using a euro-step to get an easy layup?

Cam Thomas

It looks very different, but Cam Thomas has excelled in his role for similar reasons. Again, he’s only really been in the rotation for four games. But just looking at this Nets roster on paper, it’s not surprising he’s been able to have the impact he has had, as the prototypical bench scorer many termed him as coming out of LSU.

The Brooklyn Nets’ have had great guard play this year. Bembry and Brown have championed the team’s switch to a more drop-oriented defense by taking every matchup personally, fighting over every screen, and remaining as opportunistic as ever on offense. Patty Mills has been brought everything he showed in San Antonio to Brooklyn, and then some. But it would be wrong, and unfair, to expect those guys to bring what Thomas can.

He has a twitch in his legs that, again, the Nets don’t have elsewhere on the (active) roster. Thomas can get from the perimeter to the rim, or that short-mid range area, where he has excellent touch, in the blink of an eye:

And unlike Johnson (and Bembry, whose slashing and quick-take ability have also been a boon to this offense) Thomas has reshaped his game to do so. He is not the isolation scorer or pick-and-roll player that filled up the stat sheet at LSU, in Summer League or the G-League. He is operating off the catch, and while he’s hesitated on a couple 3-point looks, he’s taken 14 in the four games he’s gotten real burn. The percentages are too early to look at. But he understands, especially with Joe Harris’ injury being the source of many of his minutes, that his game has to expand around that, for now.

Undoubtedly, Thomas being a player who can hit a catch-and-shoot three without thinking, matters. We saw it vs. the Knicks. The Nets do not have last year’s luxury of being able to pass up good shots for great ones. But more than that, Thomas maintains advantages:

It’s a simple play, for sure. But it’s an offensive process Brooklyn needs. Ricky Rubio closes out hard, fine, attack him. He moves his feet and cuts the drive off, fine, change direction. Foul. Not only does he have an ability to make tough shots, which was on display vs. both the Boston Celtics and Knicks, but he has the counters to get there.

And Thomas has belonged. Yes, there are rookie moments where he loses his man off-ball, or doesn’t fight through screens. He misses cuts that should be automatic. But there have been positive flashes we weren’t sure we’d see early on, either. This sequence from New York stands out

“Next man up”, as they say. With no Kyrie Irving, and now no Joe Harris, every Net on the roster has gotten his opportunity to be that next man. How Brooklyn has arrived at a 15-6 record and the first seed has been anything but smooth or predictable. They’ve needed ball-handling and shot creation. They’ve needed plain old offense. And they’ve turned to a rookie and their, what, sixth-most heralded acquisition of the offseason to get it? I doubt many outside of James Johnson and Cam Thomas truly saw this coming. But give credit, and more credit, to them. They stayed ready.