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Nets hit the road for a TNT game against the Suns

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Phoenix Suns v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

There are losses, and there are bad losses. Tuesday would qualify as a bad loss. The Brooklyn Nets started their road trip on Tuesday night against the worst defensive team in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. It wasn’t a must win game per se, but it was a game they definitely needed to get the road trip off to a good start and to hold off the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers in the standings. The Nets wound up turning in their worst game in months and suffered a nasty loss in San Antonio. The loss was Brooklyn’s third in a row and ended San Antonio’s five game losing streak.

Championship windows are a tricky thing. You think that you have a great amount of time to compete and maybe break through and win that elusive NBA Championship. The fans are all in, the players are bought in, and everybody’s moving in one direction. Everything’s going great, until one day you look up and everything has gone to hell. That is where the Phoenix Suns currently find themselves. A revenge season and another trip to the Finals was in the cards, but injuries and bad vibes have wreaked havoc all season long. They are now three games under .500 after the Memphis Grizzlies knocked them around on MLK Day. The Suns are now out of the play-in standings.

Where to follow the game

TNT has the TV. No YES Network coverage. WFAN has the radio. Late night affair so we getting started after 10:00 p.m. ET.


No Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving was a late scratch with right calf soreness on Tuesday. He’s listed as probable tonight.

Devin Booker is out with a left groin strain. Landry Shamet is out with right foot soreness. Cameron Payne is out with a right foot sprain. Jodh Okogie is out with a nasal fracture. Chris Paul is questionable with right hip soreness. He’s been out since January 8. Cameron Johnson is probable with a right meniscus tear. He’s been out since early November. Jae Crowder is still sitting at home as the Suns try to figure out a way to trade him elsewhere.

The game

Life is incredibly funny. Over the summer, there were nonstop rumors of KD going to the Suns in a league altering trade. It didn’t happen and the Nets are in great shape once Durant returns. For the Suns, not landing Durant will go down as one of the great what ifs in their franchise’s history.

Fans of the Suns and Phoenix Mercury are thankful to be rid of Robert Sarver. Sarver was a notoriously cheap owner and odious person to be around. You can only hope that the new folks in charge change the negative culture Sarver created and let fester for almost 20 years.

Since the beginning of December, the Suns have gone 6-18 and their defense has fallen off of a cliff. Over the past month and change, the Suns have allowed 116.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth worst in the NBA during that timespan. When the franchise player goes down, everyone else has to step up. And when the everyone else gets hurt, you’re really in some trouble. Health might be what cures Phoenix’s ills, but time is of the essence.

Since Booker’s re-injury on Christmas Day, Mikal Bridges has had to take on a lot more responsibility. In those games, he’s been averaging around 16 points, four rebounds, four assists, one steal, and one block in 36 minutes a night on .446/.404/.927 shooting splits. He’s not someone you think of as being one of the team leaders in usage, but now that Johnson is back and Paul is closer to full strength, things might fall back into its natural order.

Back-to-backs are incredibly tough. Back to back games on the West Coast with a trip to Utah after this one is tough sledding. We’ll see how Jacque Vaughn goes about managing minutes tonight and what players appear off the bench.

Cam Thomas got some playing time and did something the Nets don’t do nearly enough. Thomas attacked the basket a ton and helped get the Nets back into the game when they were sleepwalking through the early part of it. Brooklyn only drives to the basket 39 times a game, fourth worst mark in the NBA. They tend to settle more than they should and they don’t force the issue enough, especially on nights they don’t have it going from deep. With this being the front half of the back-to-back, Thomas ought to get some minutes tonight.

You can win when you don’t have a big night from downtown. There are a lot of ways to make positive contributions and winning plays even when the three point shot isn’t there. However, you’re not gonna win anything when you can’t hit threes and play fast and loose with the basketball. Brooklyn shot a season low 13.3 percent from three point range and tied a season high in turnovers with 21 on Tuesday night. That’s a recipe for disaster.

A third of those 21 turnovers belonged to Ben Simmons. Simmons had a season high seven turnovers in his 34 minutes and a lot of them were particularly egregious. Without Durant, the ball will be in his hands a lot more and he has to make smart plays to ensure that the offense gets good looks every time down. They also need him to be aggressive, which he was for the most part.

He had a triple double, but he can certainly be a lot better than that. He can and needs to be better.

The Nets tend to commit a lot of incredibly dumb fouls, and it always tends to kill any sort of rhythm they’re trying to build. The Suns have the second lowest free throw rate in the league this season. Even against an undermanned team like this, the Nets will need to play a smart, disciplined game.

Assuming Kyrie Irving is back, we’ll see how long he plays. When he missed the game against the Golden State Warriors with calf soreness, he came back to play 35 minutes the next game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Brooklyn has to head to Utah immediately after this one so Jacque Vaughn and the coaching staff might try to manage his minutes more carefully.

Player to watch: DeAndre Ayton

How do you survive when everyone is sick of each other? That’s the question Ayton and Suns management have to figure out. He had a messy summer as he tried to get to the Indiana Pacers. That didn’t happen as the Suns matched their contract offer and the gang (minus Bossman99) was back together. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, and there are red flags galore. Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun wrote about that and more here:

In the meantime, the 2023 Ayton is scarily like 2018 rookie Ayton again. The range of skills Ayton is displaying this season basically matches the skillset he had upon entering the league. He’s regressed back to playing mostly matador-level defense, settling for long-range jumpers that clank off the back rim, avoiding physicality when the ball is in his hands, and sloughing off at any notion at team leadership during a stretch where he’s by far the best player on the Suns active roster. He appears more interested in the shots he’s getting than the shots he’s stopping.

Of course, 2018-19 is not the same as 2022-23. Rookie Ayton mostly faced disinterested opponents playing straight-up defense in an easy win over a terrible Suns team. Fifth-year Ayton is facing focused opponents with game-planned defenses throwing triple teams at him on every paint catch. The fact that he’s regressing under the pressure is as much a stain on Ayton as it is on his player development coaches. Correction, more on Ayton but at least some on how he’s been coached over five years.

Jesus. And for those of you that remember James Harden’s quitting act last year, this may ring a bell:

That’s no fun. On the season, Ayton is averaging around 17 points and ten rebounds a night on .584/.318/.733 shooting splits. The numbers are fine, but the impact certainly isn’t there and he’s not impacting winning the ways he needs to.

Nic Claxton dealt with some foul trouble early, but he came through late and was the best player on the court for the Nets on Tuesday. He kept the block party going and continued to display his blossoming offensive game.

Excellent! Clax has gotten better and better throughout the season, and the Nets will need to get him some help on the interior as he battles for rebounds and deters opponents from trying to score at the rim. He can’t do it by himself out there.

From the Vault

There isn’t a more rewarding feeling in the world than when you finally beat your nemesis.

And shouts to DJ Quik!

More reading: Bright Side of the Sun