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Nets drop second game in as many days to Pistons, 130-122

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Detroit Pistons v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Can a game in which the two teams combine for 252 points also be considered a “slog”? Because that’s what the Brooklyn Nets’ 130-122 loss to the Detroit Pistons felt like on Thursday night. In his pregame comments, Jacque Vaughn correctly predicted half the night: “It might not look pretty, but the objective is to get it done. That’s the goal tonight.”

Well, it unfortunately didn’t look too pretty, but even more unfortunately, the Brooklyn Nets did not get it done vs. a Detroit team that all the typical clichés about young teams apply to: frisky but mistake-prone, athletic but sloppy...bad but promising.

For some reason, the final spread heading into game-time had Brooklyn favored by eight points. Any seasoned Nets fan could have told you that spread was too high facing your exemplary young team on the second night of a back-to-back. To some extent, you knew how the game would go: It’d be close and, as Vaughn also knew, not too pretty; no matter the winner, you knew that despite the disparity in team records, this was not going to be a blowout.

What makes this loss even more frustrating is that the Nets largely avoided the pitfalls you might have feared would lead to a loss on Thursday night. Rarely was the effort egregiously lacking: Despite obvious defensive lapses, it felt like, at the bare minimum, that they were at least trying. In that sense, they took on the demeanor of their leader, Kyrie Irving, who poured in 40 points and consistently threatened the paint against a Detroit defense designed to take away his dribble-drive game. (More on that later.)

But Irving’s outstanding effort didn’t make the loss any easier to swallow, even on a back-to-back. Not for Jacque Vaughn, anyway: “There’s no excuses. We all play the same amount of games throughout the course of the year.” He continued “We were expecting to win tonight, that’s the goal. Whether it’s a doesn’t matter, you do what’s necessary.”

Brooklyn, without KD, did not do what was necessary. And more than any other loss in their now eight games sans-Kevin Durant, in which they are 2-6, this was the ultimate “where’s KD?” night. As beautiful as Irving’s offense was tonight, it was almost taxing to watch, seeing the creation load heaped on top of him. Nobody else, especially without Seth Curry, could threaten the paint and collapse the defense besides him. That goes extra for Ben Simmons, of course, who was invisible before the officially termed “left knee soreness” forced his early exit.

Nic Claxton played well on offense, getting tough finishes to go in a variety of situations, but he’s a play finisher, not an initiator. If you hoped for T.J. Warren to initiate some offense in a game like this, you weren’t alone; this is the situation his spot on the roster would seem to alleviate, but he couldn't get anything going offensively before a knee contusion forced his early exit.

And I haven’t even mentioned the defense yet; the end of the floor where Brooklyn really lost this game, the one where Kevin Durant, despite being an offensive savant, is no slouch. “He covers up a lot of our mistakes, making him switch out on the perimeter, being able to get rebounds, and that’s where we’ve been struggling,” said Irving on his co-star, before hitting the most important nail on the head: “And just our rim protection, Nic can only do so much, to have another seven-footer makes a difference.”

And so did Nic Claxton, who admitted “We definitely miss him out there on the court on the defensive side, big time. Another [seven]-footer who helps in rebounding on protecting the rim.”

On that note, it certainly is no coincidence that, per Cleaning the Glass, Detroit shot a whopping 16.1% better at the rim than Brooklyn did on Thursday night.

This was your typical game where Kevin Durant bails Brooklyn out and leads them to a win - only he wasn’t there. The impending sense of doom that began with a slow start to the third quarter ultimately became a knockout punch. There was no uniquely galvanizing force to make up for the fact that, say, the Nets had five more turnovers than Detroit. Nor to mitigate the effects of the 15 offensive rebounds they gave up. Sure Brooklyn got 15 O-boards of their own, but that didn't make the ones they gave up feel any less back-breaking.

“Games like this, you have to have a competitive edge about yourself in order to take on multiple guys crashing the glass” said Jacque Vaughn. “Being secure with the basketball so we don’t turn the basketball over, a list of things. And so when those things don’t happen, you give up 130 points.”

Durant’s presence was missed not just because the offense was overly-reliant on Kyrie Irving, but because of those basic necessities of a quality basketball life Vaughn was describing. There was no stabilizing force, the roof over everyone else’s head that is Kevin Durant. That instability lead to 130 points for Detroit. Brooklyn shouldn’t have been that helpless defensively without him, but we’ve seen this exact performance repeatedly from this team end in a win. Durant is always the difference.

It’s not that there weren’t positives, like Kyrie’s truly excellent performance as the number one option vs. an overloading defense, or Nic Claxton’s third consecutive game with a career-high, or Edmund Sumner’s 24 points, also a career-high. But these are the Cade Cunningham-less Pistons. Their best player, Bojan Bogdanovic, scored 11 points. Brooklyn still lost. Looking at the big picture, there are no positives.

The defense wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t acceptable. There were structural issues to be sure, specifically with the defensive rebounding. But here’s the easily preventable dagger: a dunk from Jalen Duren, who was open for more than long enough for someone, anyone to rotate to him.

That play tells the story of the game: just too little too late.

Film Room

Here’s that Kyrie love I mentioned. It helps when you make six threes as he did, but this was one of his best offensive performances a Net without Kevin Durant, for me. You’ll see aggressive defense from help defenders on his drives, and aggressive hedges from the screener’s defender on pick-and-rolls, but it didn’t matter. Kyrie got into the lane and made the right play all night long.

That Pistons defense worked, however, on everybody not named Kyrie Irving, as they took advantage of a roster without a lot of players who can get into the lane and make a high-level pass. Here’s TJ Warren, who had a disappointing offensive night overall, with his worst play of the night:

Here’s one of those structural issues I mentioned with the rebounding:

You want Claxton to block every shot, and his freedom to chase blocks has obviously been working for Brooklyn. But it does expose them on the defensive glass, either by him leaving his man, as he does here, or by winding up with matchups like Joe Harris boxing out Jalen Duren, which happened in the fourth.

There’s a certain push and pull with how much Brooklyn asks of Claxton on D, and he’s certainly aware of it: “Sometimes I need to leave some of those shots that guys are taking and just play the numbers game and stay there for a rebound instead of going for a block and getting out of position.”

That play was an example of Claxton getting caught in no man’s land, but he was outstanding overall tonight, so let’s give him some love. His biggest improvement this year, to me, is consistently finishing plays like these:

Injury Watch

Ben Simmons exited the game at the 6:40 mark of the third quarter with that damned left knee soreness, again. We’ve been here before. TJ Warren left with a right knee contusion in the fourth quarter; for what it’s worth, he was listed as “probable” with that injury before last Sunday’s game in Golden State, so this doesn’t appear to be an entirely new issue.

Jacque Vaughn, post-game, had no details on either player, nor if Brooklyn has discussed the possibility of MRI’s for those two in the immediate future.

Considering this is the second time Ben has left a back-to-back with knee soreness, it’s fair to wonder if these games should just be a no-go for Simmons, no matter what. That’s what Kristian Winfield asked Jacque Vaughn in post-game, and Vaughn had an answer that some may raise the slightest of eyebrows at: “The goal is, I’ll say this, for everyone to play every game. And to do what’s necessary to be prepared to play every game...The preparation that it takes going into [a back-to-back], you just have to give credit to the guys who were prepared to play, ready to play, did what was necessary to get their bodies ready to play.”

I certainly don’t think it’s absolutely nothing that Vaughn didn’t mention Simmons’ name there, in a question that was specifically asked about him. I’ll give that a light “hmmm”.

Milestone Watch

  • Edmund Sumner set a career-high of 24 points, in large part due to a sparkling 8-8 performance from the free-throw line.
  • As previously mentioned, Nic Claxton set a new career-high in points for the third game in a row with 27 tonight. It was also his fifth-straight game with 20 points after hitting that mark just once in his career, before the streak started.
  • Kyrie Irving became the fourth player in Nets NBA history to hit 30+ points in five straight games, joining Kevin Durant, Stephon Marbury and John Williamson. None of those players made it to six, so look out.
  • Speaking of Kyrie, he now sits just three 40-point games behind Vince Carter (who totaled 17 of them) for most in Nets NBA history.
  • For those of a certain (my) age, this is definitely a milestone: Nic Claxton’s 2k23 player rating was bumped up from an 80 to an 85 on Thursday morning. When asked, “Do you pay attention to 2k player ratings?” Clax immediately responded with “Yeah, I saw I’m an 85 now.”

As SpongeBob might say...

Next up

Brooklyn’s next chance to redeem themselves will be on Saturday night with a home game vs. the New York Knicks, who are riding high after beating the Celtics in an OT thriller on Thursday night.

For a different perspective on tonight’s game, head on over to Detroit Bad Boys. They’re celebrating.