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Nets wrap up West Coast trip with contest vs. Blazers

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It can’t get worse! That’s the good news for the Brooklyn Nets heading into their Thursday contest vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. For that game to steepen the Nets’ downward slope, they’d have to set a new franchise record for defensive futility and lose by more than 30. Again, that is. Brooklyn’s defeat in Sacramento Tuesday was marked by 153 points allowed and equal amounts of competitive basketball and garbage time.

The loss dropped Brooklyn to 6-9 on the still-young-but-not-prepubescent season, ahead of only Orlando, Detroit, and Charlotte in the Eastern Conference. Not great.

It wasn’t all bleak for Brooklyn, as much as that sentence can be true when 153-121 is the final score. Ben Simmons looked as solid as he has all season. There is the urge to blast his performance as not good enough, though, and I get it. This is, don’t laugh, a team that entered the season with title hopes largely pinned to Simmons’ trajectory.

In light of those hopes, here’s a brief rundown of the Nets’ roster construction at various stages of the last three seasons:

  • Two stars, a very solid supporting cast featuring ample offensive creation skills
  • Three stars including two MVP-level ones, a fairly limited, but solid supporting cast
  • Uh-oh
  • Two stars, a limited supporting cast, let’s hope Simmons can fill that star-sized hole in the roster

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but this reminds me of another 6-9 team with title hopes: The Warriors. James Wiseman is not a good NBA player right now, but given the time he’s missed and the system he’s being thrown into, it’s hard to castigate him for that. But the Warriors, fair or not, have filled his plate multiple servings high. Their roster construction necessitates that he (and fellow youngins Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, to an extent) play twenty solid minutes a night, at least. He can’t.

No, it’s not the same as the Simmons situation. There is real hope that Simmons becomes a good-to-great player this season; it would be a return to form. Wiseman is many potential leaps away from accomplishing the same. The Warriors could easily package Wiseman in a deal that immediately improves their team. The Nets...would probably love to do such a thing.

But in this moment, I’m not sure what you can ask of Ben10. His lack of stardom exposes roster flaws that only he can fix. Brooklyn doesn’t have nearly enough ball-handling and/or creative talent to get by, especially when Kyrie Irving is off the court. That’s what Simmons is here for. If it’s a successful recipe, though, it has to sit in the oven for a long while and be watched closely.

What Simmons has been through is well-documented. If, and it’s a big if, he returns to form, his progress will be a slow grind. You have to appreciate Ben looking the best he has, even if that best is far from where it needs to be. Even if it feels repetitive, even if it feels damn-near cringe-worthy to applaud a double-digit performance from a former All-Star. It’s your only hope.

For now, Kevin Durant has a monumental load that decreases only marginally upon Kyrie Irving’s return, which, apparently, could be on Sunday. KD is still the whole solar system for Brooklyn’s offense. And you can only run so many set plays to take advantage of his talent...

...before consistent double teams and unrelenting physicality from opponents wear him and the rest of the Brooklyn offense down, realizing they don’t have many other options, at least at this point.

So, the Nets head into Portland looking for a win. A win that would cap a four-game road trip on the opposite side of the country at 2-2. All of a sudden, things may not be feeling too bad. Just like...five days ago? Momentum shifts quickly in this league, let’s see if the Nets can wrestle some of it back on Thursday night.

Where to follow the game

The game is being telecast on YES Network, as well as the YES App, and WFAN-FM has the radio call. Of course, it’s another late tip, scheduled for start at 10:00 p.m. ET, from Portland, Oregon’s own Moda Center.


Kyrie Irving is out for what might be his last absence, and T.J. Warren and his recovering foot remain out for what is certainly not his last absence. Sorry, T.J.

Portland has a trio of questionable’s for Thursday's contest, including Nets-killer Jusuf Nurkic (thigh), as well as Justise Winslow (ankle) and Keon Johnson (hip). Reminder that Gary Payton II, who you may have forgotten about, is on this team as well. He's just not playing yet, recovering from offseason surgery on his core muscles.

The game

The Portland Trail Blazers are, like the Kings, off to a fun start that sure feels damn good for their fanbase. Unlike Sacramento, though, they are first in the West! First! Ten wins, four losses! That probably won’t last long, but it’s no fluke. Damian Lillard is still awesome, and spoiler alert, I’m not writing a “player to watch” section for this one because, duh. To preview the Blazers is to preview Lillard raising the blood pressure of defenses as soon as he steps over half-court, then lowering it by sticking daggers into them.

The rest of team, though, is different. I wrote this about the Blazers four games into the season: “It is already clear that their roster changes were not merely cosmetic - the chaotic, athletic energy on the wings is a stark change from what guys like Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu brought. The impact of that on Portland’s ultimate ceiling, though? TBD.” Josh Hart, Jerami Grant, and Anfernee Simons are not your older sibling’s Trail Blazers.

But it hasn’t quite shown up in ways you would expect, just yet. The Blazers do not push the ball up the court, although that changes a bit when Lillard hits the bench. Per, Portland has the second-slowest pace in the league. Rather, in the half-court, when the ball starts swinging side-to-side, their aforementioned wings are not afraid to attack the closeout and dish, and rinse and repeat and all of a sudden you have an avalanche of limbs closing in on the basket in waves. Double Lillard, and you have a 4-on-3. “Ice” the pick-and-roll and overload your defense to one side, which Brooklyn has done a lot of this year, and Lillard will make the cross-court pass (a skill which he’s improved tremendously) and now Jerami Grant is attacking a long closeout. A lot of their rim attempts are wild (25th in shooting percentage at the bucket, per Cleaning the Glass), but it wears on a defense and opens up three-point shots, where Portland is one of just three teams shooting over 40% from deep on the season. Brooklyn’s help-and-recovering better look like it did in those first few games of the Jacque Vaughn-era vs. Washington, Charlotte, and Dallas.

Meanwhile, Portland has the seventh-ranked defense in the league...but that is worthy of some skepticism. They give up the 3rd-most corner threes in the league and the 3rd-most shots at the rim (Cleaning the Glass, again). This should be an opportunity to get Kevin Durant in pick-and-roll more often, with Brooklyn instead opting to post him up, recently. Portland will fly around the court defensively, but I’d rather have them make decisions against an active driver than premeditated rotations vs. a standstill offense. Maybe some dribble hand-offs for Joe Harris (who does need to shoot better, but is playing just fine, otherwise) and Seth Curry? Anything to generate some momentum headed towards the paint against a defense that may be punching above their weight at the moment.

From the Vault

R.I.P. to the former Net and Trail Blazer (but, admittedly, mostly Trail Blazer) Clifford Robinson. Here’s Uncle Cliffy throwing down a huge dunk over Manute Bol:

Not many better players to posterize, that’s for sure.