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Nets travel to Dallas in tough road test

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Dallas Mavericks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets are forcing me to talk about basketball. Honest-to-God basketball, in a season where that seemed impossible barring a complete detonation of the roster. We’re not out of the woods on that yet, but the vibes are...pleasant, right now? Of course, it’s a textbook case of the league-defining recency bias in the NBA, which makes for a ton of ebbing and flowing over 82 games. However, there’s no denying that weekend wins over the Wizards and Hornets (admittedly meh competition) were full of fun, solid basketball.

Think about it for too long, and the questions get overwhelming. Udoka? Kyrie? How long can these moments of bliss last? At this point, it’s better to tune in for three hours, every other night or so, and stay off social media the rest of the time.

Saturday’s win in Charlotte featured a frantic comeback from 12 down in the final seven minutes of the game, as well as standout performances from the newbies turning into usual suspects. Cam Thomas, in his second batch of extended minutes this season, put up 21 points and four assists, including 11 trips to the line (making 10 of them.) Yes, he is still wired to get to a contested mid-range pull-up, but he explored beyond that this weekend, hence the ten assists — and a +69 rating — over two games. His decisions still seem pre-determined, rather than purely reactive, but when that pre-determination is a pass, Thomas is showing more and more craft and patience in delivering the ball to his intended target.

Yuta Watanabe, meanwhile, has become the golden child of this Brooklyn season, exceeding everybody’s wildest expectations. The Nets are outscoring opponents by 3.7 points/100 with Watanabe on the floor (67th percentile). And using an even smaller but more exciting sample that certainly matches the eye test, the Nets are +12.1/100 with the Japanese native at the 5 (Stats from Cleaning the Glass).

One reason those lineups are working is because Watanabe has shown proficiency sparking the offense after setting screens for Kevin Durant:

Of course, his physical presence and defensive activity have been strong. But Watanabe-at-the-5 lineups are an enticing option to close games right now because of plays like the above (and the shooting). He has a certain bite to his decision-making when playing 4-on-3, certainly more so than Nic Claxton.

And it’s not just Watanabe that Brooklyn has been using to screen for KD. It’s Joe Harris, who really perfected the art of pick-and-popping playing with James Harden, as well as Royce O’Neale. This was a huge play in ensuring a comeback against Charlotte:

The potato is hot right now for Brooklyn, and as teams will surely continue to double Durant, it should continue to be. Suspending Kyrie Irving certainly doesn’t raise the ceiling of the team, but it does simplify things a bit, by speeding them up. The Nets are not leaning on lineups that, I’m sure, they anticipated leaning on heading into the season. But guys like Watanabe, Thomas, and even Edmund Sumner have

  • to prove their statuses as NBA-caliber players;
  • the wherewithal to read-and-react when someone gets doubled.

That was a recipe for successful offense against Washington and Charlotte, and the defense benefitted from a kinetic energy cut from the same cloth.

But while that was all nice and well this past weekend, Brooklyn faces a different challenge on Monday: the Dallas Mavericks.

Where to follow the game

YES Network and the YES App will have the telecast, while WFAN-FM has the radio call for Nets fans. It’s a late one. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:45 P.M. ET from American Airlines Arena in Dallas.

Injuries

Kyrie Irving remains suspended; for how long, who really knows? And, of course, T.J. Warren is still rehabbing that foot of his. He’s supposed to get re-evaluated this month, but no word when in November that will take place. But Ben Simmons will play after missing the previous four games with soreness in his left knee. He will be on a minutes restriction, probably 20 minutes tonight. Progress, I suppose! Even more progress is that, for the first time all season, Seth Curry is off the injury report entirely, not even questionable! No news is good news.

On the Dallas side of things, they’ll be missing some European flair, as both Davis “the Latvian Laser” Bertans (knee), and Frank “Frankie Smokes” Ntilikina (ankle) are out for Monday’s contest.

The Nets need some better nicknames.

The game

Normally, “The game” and “Player to Watch” are independent sections, but not today. Currently, Luka Doncic is knocking on the door of the highest single-season usage rate in NBA history, his current mark of 39.2% a close shout to Russell Westbrook’s 41.5% in 2016-’17.

There is no way to stop the Dallas offense that Luka spearheads, the one leading the league in offensive rating. There is no ball-screen defense that Luka Magic doesn’t disintegrate into dust, processing every counter in his mind with the speed of flipping through index cards. Continuous one-on-one defense is just begging for a 40-ball from Doncic. It would be hard to argue that he is not the best offensive player in the world, right now. He’s certainly not meaningfully worse than Steph Curry or Nikola Jokic, the two other real contenders for that title (Sorry, KD!).

But Brooklyn has to do better than they did last time, in the last game they played before the organization started, seemingly, glitching.

Matt Brooks did a great video on the shortcomings of the ball-screen defense that ultimately sank Brooklyn in their October contest vs. the Mavericks, but even a trailer for that video is enough to show you that, in their haste to put out the walking fire that is Luka Doncic, simple pick-and-pops destroyed their integrity.

Jacque Vaughn talked about raising the level of frenzy and unpredictability on defense this weekend. Brooklyn did just that, albeit against two teams that could combine to start ten guys and not score as often as Dallas. The Nets should still dance with who brought them, though.

I’d predict that they play a more aggressive coverage against Doncic and the Mavericks that involves consistently sending two guys too the ball, forcing it out of Luka’s hands. I started this article by highlighting how Brooklyn got good offense when Charlotte doubled Durant, but so be it. This is a risk you have to take. Luka’s passing and decision-making makes him a different animal. Rely on that chaos that the role players are playing with right now, and force Dorian Finney-Smith or Maxi Kleber to decide the fate of Dallas’ possessions. Just be ready to scramble. Brooklyn was more than ready this past weekend.

As for Simmons return, he told media Monday morning that he was doing fine and was ready to go, even with restrictions.

“Yeah, I’ll be in (Monday). I’ll be in; I think I’ve got like 20 minutes,” Simmons said at the Nets’ morning shootaround. “I feel great. It took a few days to get some rehab in, get it right. So I’m feeling great.”

“I don’t want to make that an excuse, but I had a swollen knee. It is what it is, but it’s taken care of now, so I’m glad I’m moving (well),” said Simmons, adding his back injury likely played a role in his knee swelling up.

“I think overall if you have something you’re doing on your left side, it typically affects your right side. I had a lower right back injury so it’s probably a part to it. But as time goes on I need to stay on my strength in terms of left and right knee. And then obviously continue to do the work I’ve been doing on my back.”

From the Vault

It’s always a good time to remember Keith Van Horn, who you may not remember finished his career as a Dallas Maverick, way before Jason Kidd made that cool. (What? No he surely didn’t play for the Knicks after that.)

Anyway, here’s Van Horn driving the ball from the top of the key and posterizing Etan Thomas!

He pretty much jumped from the dotted line! He shot 36% on three attempts from deep per game, over his career. That play, and those stats alone make you wonder about Van Horn as a modern NBA player. Maybe a beefed up Grant Williams? Although shooting 84% from the line, career-wise, may suggest even more shooting potential than that.

Further reading: Mavs Moneyball