After three difficult quarters of play Monday night, Brooklyn trailed Memphis by 26 points with 9:24 left. The team looked lackluster. So it was time to rest the starters. It wasn’t so much that the team needed a spark in hopes of pulling off an improbable rally. It was classic garbage time.
So Steve Nash did what coaches have done forever. He released his deep bench — Jevon Carter, Cam Thomas, David Duke Jr., Bruce Brown and Day’Ron Sharpe. Three rookies in Thomas, Duke Jr. and Sharpe along with two guys who are 25-something.
The 26-point deficit quickly shrunk. The young guys cut the deficit to 10 with 3:20 remaining. That was the closest Brooklyn got before Memphis regained their composure and sealed their ninth road win in their last 10 road contests. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins had to put Ja Morant back in. It was a third-straight loss in the Nets’ books but the insertion of the rookies proved the only positive in a game that had fans shaking their heads ... some even booing the starters.
“They played with a lot of energy. Played hard. That’s what we need,” said James Harden on the play of the rookies in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ defeat at Barclays Center. “They played aggressive and defensively: went into bodies, gang-rebound. Offensively, played with pace. Day’Ron [Sharpe] did a really good job of setting screens. Guys played off the catch and made shots, and that’s the kind of pace that we need.”
By game’s end, Thomas had scored eight points on 4-of-8 shooting and handed out four assists while Sharpe had six points and four rebounds (as well as five personals). Carter hit 2-of-4 from deep.
Despite a thrilling fourth-quarter showing that had the paid attendance of 17,809 fans revived and out of their seats, with some shaking their heads that the three rookies didn’t see minutes in the previous three-quarters of play.
After the embarrassing defeat — Brooklyn’s third-straight loss, Steve Nash explained how he knows the youth have earned their opportunities, but there were reasons that he didn’t play them earlier, despite the malaise on the court. The Nets head coach admitted that because the rookies were the last to clear the league’s health and safety protocols last week, he wanted to take a cautious approach to their loads Monday night. In fact, the only rookie who didn’t play — Kessler Edwards — was the last of 10 Nets to clear protocols.
Most importantly, though, Nash added opportunities will come for the kids who played so well a couple of weeks ago when the first wave of protocols removed veterans like Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge from the arena. It’s just uncertain when those opportunities will arise now that the Nets are more whole than they’ve been since the first round of last year’s playoffs.
“They certainly earned an opportunity but the younger guys were the ones coming out of COVID last so there’s a little bit of a delay in them getting up to speed as far as their fitness and safety. There’s not only a hierarchy of pecking order but there’s also the adaptation and return to play. We’ll see,” said Nash. “Those guys have definitely when they’ve gotten their opportunities during COVID or like tonight have played very well. We like them all.
“They earned minutes. We’ll see whether they get them or who gets them or when, but they deserve opportunities and opportunities will come. It’s just uncertain when they’ll come.”
After a hectic two-week span of health and safety protocol madness, the Nets coaching staff has stuck to a condensed rotation with their almost-full roster. The trimmed rotation has left the rookies on the short end of the stick and at the end of the bench. When their opportunities do come, the team’s stars have always taken notice.
The rookies, the core of the “stay-ready group,” have also been helping Kyrie Irving since he too returned from protocols and began ramping up. He’s expected to make his season debut against the Pacers in Indiana on Wednesday. Whether it’s on the NBA hardwood or on the courts of the HSS Training Center behind closed doors, their efforts don’t go unnoticed. Monday night’s performance left another of the Nets “Big Three” impressed.
“I love the young guys and what they bring to our team. It’s good to see them get some minutes and opportunities to make it a game and they did, for sure,” said Kevin Durant post-game. “They [Grizzlies] had to put their starters back in, so you got to give them credit. I’m glad Steve didn’t put the starters back in for us and let those guys finish the game off. It was a good lesson and good to see them out there playing hard and playing together. “It was inspiring. You heard the crowd get up and cheer. It was good to see.”
Brooklyn is looking to overcome the most adversity the team has faced all season, losing a season-high three-straight games and sliding them down to the second seed in the Eastern Conference standings. Now, they’ll have to re-integrate Irving ... and wait longer than expected for Joe Harris.
So will Thomas return to his pre-protocols role as first shooter off the bench? Will Sharpe get minutes if the veteran bigs need rest? And will Edwards and Duke get to show their defensive prowess as they did only two weeks ago? The reality is that it won’t be the Nets top priority. Getting the “Big Three” on the court together will be, but after their play during the protocols — and their exciting response Monday — the rookies once again proved to the Nets and Nash know what they can bring.