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Despite Cam Thomas 36, Brooklyn Nets lose to Cleveland Cavaliers, 113-114

Cam Thomas erupted for 36 points off the bench, but he and the Nets came up painfully short in their season opener

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long, long time since the Brooklyn Nets lost to the Philadelphia 76ers on April 22nd, eliminating them from the 2023 playoffs. The Nets didn’t have a particularly dramatic off-season, but as the summer’s dog days passed, then training camp, then the pre-season, Opening Night was arriving at a snail’s pace. It always does.

But we finally made it, and we can begin building our answers to the questions we relentlessly debated this off-season. Is Ben Simmons back? How good is Mikal Bridges, really? Forget that, how good are the Brooklyn Nets, really?

Our first piece of evidence was nearly overwhelmingly positive. Brooklyn played a good Cleveland Cavaliers team, led by a real offensive star in Donovan Mitchell. There were stretches of excellent defense, fast-paced offense, and solid 3-point shooting, all the tenets of what this Nets team should be.

And yet, they blew it. There is no other way to describe what Brooklyn did on Opening Night, in front of their home fans, down the stretch of what should’ve been a feel-great win. A six-point lead with less than two minutes evaporated, and the sickly feeling in fans’ stomaches can only mean one thing: Nets basketball is so back.

Final score: Cleveland 114, Brooklyn 113.

The Nets started their 2023-24 campaign on the wrong foot, if they even managed to take a step before falling. Halfway through the first quarter, the Cavaliers led 22-9, and all the worst-case scenarios were real. Drop defense wasn’t working against Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, who were getting to their spots with ease. The offense was stagnant, and Ben Simmons even passed up a wide-open lay-up to kick the ball out, despite looking fine, physically:

“The message was ‘our starts have to be better,’” said Vaughn, keeping it simple.

81.75 more games of dreary basketball flashed before Nets fans’ eyes. Well, maybe mine. But we were forgetting a special somebody: Cam Thomas.

Thomas checked in less than five minutes into the night, and was the catalyst in Brooklyn quickly erasing their 13-point deficit by scoring the damn ball. It’s what he does:

“I mean, that’s his job, come off the bench and bring instant offense,” said Bridges of his microwave teammate. “Defensively, he’s been playing hard, being in the right spots, so that was a big thing for him to learn, but that’s what he’s supposed to do off the bench. He’s supposed to lead that bench in scoring and provide offense...He can score the hell out of the ball.”

By intermission, Brooklyn and Cleveland were locked in a fun, back-and-forth battle, tied at 63 apiece. Thomas had scored 24 points in just 14 minutes of action, on 8-of-11 shooting, and in vintage fashion, if such a thing exists for a third-year player. He cashed tough mid-range fade-aways and floaters, and took backup big Damian Jones in isolation when Cleveland switched.

During pre-season, Jacque Vaughn vowed that Thomas would have an opportunity to score the ball, but that it'd have to come within an offensive flow. It didn’t on Wednesday night, but Thomas and the Nets had no other option. They needed buckets in a bad way, and turned to their bucket-getter off the bench. Nothing wrong with that.

Elsewhere, the defense, which gave up 37 first-quarter points, improved drastically, giving up just 26 in the second. Brooklyn got stops, and they got out in transition, which is where most of Ben Simmons’ seven first-half assists came:

While Cleveland’s explosive back-court duo of Garland and Mitchell had decent first halves, Brooklyn would’ve been leading if they bothered to check Max Strus. The Cavs signed Strus in the off-season; they haven’t had a sniper on the wing since the LeBron James Era. And Strus earned quite a few Pennis of his $64 million contract in the first half. He hit five 3-pointers, some facing tough contests, some facing none at all:

In many ways, the second half mirrored the first. Brooklyn quickly fell behind by eight, and while Simmons continued to dish out assists, ultimately finishing with nine of ‘em, he looked quite passive, occasionally throwing up hooks instead of layups when he bothered to shoot. Cam Thomas checked in, scored the rock, and the Nets climbed back into the game. Strus kept shooting, and finished tied as Cleveland’s leading scorer, with 27 points.

Brooklyn couldn’t regain equal footing until the fourth quarter, where a lineup headlined by Thomas, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dennis Smith Jr. re-took the lead on Smith Jr.’s second 3-pointer of the night. In 16 minutes, DSJ scored ten points while treating us to some fun individual possessions against Mitchell. And some of that energy his teammates raved about in training camp:

Vaughn was full of praise for his back-up guard, saying, “I think, overall, he was a part of that stretch that really got us back in the game. It was the physicality which he played with that kind of permeated through the group. I think he has that ability to do that.”

On a packed NBA Wednesday featuring 12 games, Nets-Cavaliers was shaping up to be the night’s best: a tight, back-and-forth contest featuring teams playing solid, if imperfect basketball.

Scoring slowed late in the fourth and Vaughn continued to mix and match lineups as he said he would before the night started: “I don’t want our guys coasting. I don’t want them thinking, ‘This is going to be an eight-minute stretch, and so let me be easy for these two minutes.’ I rather you play a four or five minute stretch and sit for minute and we put you back in.”

Brooklyn’s head coach stayed true to his word, and then some. Thomas, who finished with 36 points, played possessions here and there down the stretch. So did Simmons, Dinwiddie (under two fourth-quarter minutes), Finney-Smith, Claxton, everybody not named Mikal Bridges, really.

And when Royce O’Neale hit this huge 3-pointer to put Brooklyn up 108-105...

...Vaughn seemed on his way to mad-scientist status, especially so after Bridges knocked in a pair of free-throws to give the Nets a 111-105 lead with 80 seconds left.

Not so. New York native Donovan Mitchell, as he did last season in the Barclays Center, took over. A step-back jumper cut the gap to four, then two possessions later, he stole the ball from O’Neale — bringing it up the court as Dinwiddie, Simmons, and Smith Jr. sat on the bench — and dunked it. Tie game.

In less than forty seconds, the Nets had blown a seemingly out-of-reach lead:

And while Bridges briefly re-captured the lead with a pair of free-throws, this Mitchel 3-pointer, the game-winner, was good before he even shot it:

Brooklyn may have been better off forfeiting their last possession, which ended in a desperation heave from Thomas after Vaughn couldn’t call a timeout as the play broke down

“I wish I had a buzzer...I’m across half-court trying to [call time],” said Vaughn:

Vaughn and Bridges each confirmed the final play was originally designed for Bridges, but Thomas couldn’t make the entry pass off a tough angle: “Tried to get open. Thought it was a tough pass for Cam. I think it was just a tough, risky pass for him,” said Bridges, who finished with 20/6/4 and three steals.

There’s no telling if a timeout would’ve saved the Nets from an über-painful loss in the first game of the season. Mitchell’s 3-pointer certainly felt like the fatal dagger it turned out to be. I want to say to Nets deserved to win this game. They did so many things right, overcoming sizable deficits to play really strong team basketball for long portions of the night. Nearly every rotation player contributed, shining in their own way.

But no, the Brooklyn Nets did not deserve to win this game. They created their opportunity, sure, but they couldn’t close the door. They let the Cleveland Cavaliers do that, and it stings a whole lot. It’s hard to imagine a game filled with this many positives leaving such a negative aftertaste. And yet.

Minutes, Minutes, Minutes

Jacque Vaughn made solid coaching decisions in the first game of the season. Brooklyn switched Nic Claxton onto Mitchell on a crucial crunch-time possession after refusing to do so all game long, and it resulted in an easy defensive stop. Brooklyn mixed in traps on Darius Garland, which were largely effective. For three-and-a-half quarters, the substitution patterns were a success.

Until they weren’t. Thus, Vaughn is facing far more criticism than any Nets player for an 0-1 record. On Mitchell’s steal-and-slam to tie the game at 111, there was no traditional ball-handler on the floor. Thomas exploded for 36 points before sitting the majority of the fourth quarter. As Vaughn made consistent offense-defense subs, Finney-Smith played a whole lot of O down the stretch. Naturally, these decisions bring questions and confusion, perhaps even from his players:

Vaughn attributed his decisions to a desire to keep legs fresh, and minutes, for the most part, under the 30-mark:

I thought the minutes overall were where they needed to be tonight. Probably a little bit more for Mikal, but besides that, that was the plan going into it. Our guys won’t be 30-plus a lot because of the fact that we have to play extremely hard and I don’t want them coasting. So I do want them tired when I check them out of the game. That is gonna be the goal for us and let’s see if it works.”

When asked specifically about Thomas’ lack of fourth-quarter minutes, Vaughn simply said, “If you watched that thing, he was tired after that stretch we had put him in before,” and thus, wanted to give his leading scorer a breather.

With such frequent substitutions, Nets fans are sure to see some interesting decisions from the man in charge — Lonnie Walker IV was a healthy DNP on Wednesday night. When Brooklyn wins, of course, Vaughn will reap the praise. But when they lose, particularly in the excruciating fashion they did to Cleveland, woof. Second-guesses abound.

Milestone Watch

The obvious milestone is Cam Thomas 36 points off the bench, the most ever on an Opening Night. However, the 36 points were not a Nets franchise record. That record is 44, held by ... Cam Thomas. The previous record was 35 points held by Ricky Pierce 34 years ago. Thomas 15 points in the first quarter was the most he had ever scored in the first quarter of any game.

The Net guard’s point total was also the most by any player on either of the NBA’s opening nights.

As Sponge Bob might say...

If you’ve come here looking for NetsDepiction’s Sponge Bob meme, sorry to say he won’t be doing them as frequently. Here’s what he sent us Tuesday.

What a ride it has been. When I started this account, I was just a college kid excited that his favorite basketball team just signed a couple of superstars. I knew I needed to be involved somehow. I had applied for the BSE summer internship every year I was eligible (and a few years I probably wasn’t). I knew that if given the platform, I could make Nets fans laugh. I just knew.

O.G. followers will know I started back in 2018 with clips from the Office. Half because I thought it would be funny, but I also wanted to see if it was something I could keep up with over the course of a full season. That full season just happened to be the most exciting of the Brooklyn era. Back then, three or four likes on a post meant I really cooked up a banger.

After the Summer of the Clean Sweep I decided to rebrand to @NetsDepiction and find a subject matter that seemed to have more universal appeal, and was easier to meme. SpongeBob SquarePants, in retrospect, was the only correct choice.

The next four years were a rollercoaster. For a plethora of reasons that I don’t need to explain to any of you. You always need a little bit of luck, and I was lucky enough to create content surrounding a team that produced national headlines like bees make honey. But the constant through all the change has always been you, Nets World; the greatest fan base in basketball.

Seriously though. This social media niche micro-influencer thing only works when people are engaged and enjoying it. And none of it was possible without you. All of your comments, DMs, and quote tweets truly meant the world. Friends would roll their eyes every time I would send a screenshot of someone commenting “this account doesn’t miss!” under a post. Family would come up to me and ask, “How’s your SpongeBob thing going?”.

This account has allowed me to meet people and have experiences that I will carry with me a lifetime. People I used to view as solely online personalities I now know as peers. Reflecting on even the past few years it’s crazy to see where life has taken everyone, from TV, radio, podcasts, working across the NBA, and just about everywhere else. I have been pretty vocal about it in the past but I still do mean it, you won’t have a more talented group across NBA Twitter than in Brooklyn.

Alright, now the tough part…

I am a big believer in you either do it right or don’t do it at all. I have wrestled with it for about three months now. I didn’t want to believe it myself, thus leading to me not announcing this until so close to the season (sorry about that). But no matter how I do the math, the answer is the same: this season is going to look different. I can’t realistically continue with the content schedule you’ve all come to know due to some recent life changes. It would kill me when I had to post my “reaction” before the game was even over, or the following day. And this season it would have been more of that than I felt comfortable with.

We wish him well and thank him for all his hard work, but our recaps won’t be same. Still, he remains a Nets fan and that’s the best.

Nets Honor Mrs. Whammy

On September 4th of this year, the Brooklyn Nets announced that Judy Reznick, AKA Mrs. Whammy, had passed away at the age of 87. East Rutherford, Newark, Brooklyn, it didn’t matter; Judy and her husband Bruce, Mr. Whammy, cheered for their Nets and hexed the opponents as best they could. Did the the Nets organization deserve such faithfulness with they unceremoniously dumped New Jersey for Brooklyn? No. But the Reznicks delivered.

Fittingly, the Nets honored Judy’s memory with a touching tribute during their home opener, bringing the Barclays Center crowd to its feet and tears to many eyes:

Opening Night a sellout plus

Nets drew 17,931 fans to Opening Night vs Cavs. In addition to being a sellout, the game attracted nearly 200 more fans that the arena’s stated capacity of 17,732, for basketball. With standing room, the percentage of seats filled, 106.4%, was highest in the league on either of the NBA’s opening nights.

Next Up

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

A familiar face awaits the Brooklyn Nets, as they hit the road for an early four-game swing. It starts in Dallas against Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic, and the Mavericks, who handed Victor Wembanyama an ‘L’ in their first game of the season. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET on Friday night.