In their quest to dampen what was another all-around solid showing for Brooklyn, even without a pair of starters, the otherworldly force that is Luka Doncic left Nets fans with a sickening pit in their stomachs.
I’ll spare the Nets diehards the another full recap. Doing so would be like asking Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas to re-watch that scene at the end of the second act. If you’re brave enough though, you can find last night’s full story here.
But amidst all the whacking the Nets took, I ended the evening with a few conclusory thoughts. Believe it or not, and quite contrary to my tone thus far I’ll admit, one of those thoughts is actually quite positive. Let’s get into it.
Cam Thomas Needs to Play 25+ Minutes Every Night
I won’t get into the starting vs sixth man debate here. If you want my honest opinion, the team’s top scorer should always start the game purely out of respect to the player. But ultimately, it’s about who plays the most minutes and especially who closes out games that matters most. The 2018-19 Nets are a shinning example of that, as Kenny Atkinson often started either Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie only to close with the other. For the record, LeVert started 25, Dinwiddie four.
But regardless of whether or not Thomas comes off the bench, he needs to play more than 25 minutes each night. With skeptics pointing at his lackadaisical defense or clouded court vision while others referenced his God-given ability to put the ball through the net, the debate over whether or not the Nets should feature Thomas as a main pillar within their rotation has been brewing in Brooklyn for over two years.
Now, that debate is over.
Both the “eye test” and analytics argue the Nets are better when Thomas is on the floor. In their first two contests, the Nets stalled during multiple bench stints for the Thomas. The pressure he puts on the defense at all three levels, his ability to penetrate from the perimeter, and his improved passing all work to get Brooklyn’s additional offensive instruments humming.
Thomas also just became the first Net in NBA history to tally 30+ points in his team’s first two games of the season. While its early, he also ranks top ten in the league in usage rate and points per game.
With Mikal Bridges still looking to find his groove and Nic Claxton now injured, you could argue Thomas is Brooklyn’s best player at this point in time. I’ll repeat what everyone says under their breaths while watching him play, this guy is an absolute bucket. Stop overthinking it, Thomas needs to play — and play a lot if the Nets want to stay competitive.
Brooklyn’s defense is figuring it out
I feel like Paul George from a few years back here after he called Damian Lillard’s game-winner over him a “bad shot.” After all, Doncic’s game-winning heave last evening found the bottom of the net, as did Lillard’s. But by all other aspects, it was a “bad shot,” forced by some stellar defense from the Nets.
Between both contests, but especially the second one, the Nets defense looked far tougher than the product we witnessed in the preseason. Blending their switch defense from last year and the drop we saw them experiment with during the preseason, Brooklyn’s defense is making progress.
I was especially impressed last night with Brooklyn’s ability to double Doncic and Irving, but then rotate fast enough to seal off opportunities after either Doncic or Irving passed out of said double. It was a prime display of team defense without their anchor in Claxton. Even Thomas, who again has been criticized for his slow defense in the past, did well to stay in front of Doncic on multiple occasions.
Onto Irving, the Nets gave him trouble as well. Brooklyn fans know better than anyone how easily Irving can go nuclear, but the Nets kept his warheads untriggered for the most part. Uncle Drew finished with just 17 points while shooting 6-of-17 from the field as the Nets harassed him almost every time he ventured around the rim. And he was obvious frustrated by it...
Ben Simmons got on Kyrie’s nerves LMFAO pic.twitter.com/P2ns5cKphS— BenMuse (@BenSimmons_Muse) October 28, 2023
“I think we changed coverages throughout the course of the night to give different looks like we talked about before the game,” said Jacque Vaughn postgame. “I thought our guys were mentally in it to respond. And we started with the physicality, and so we contested a lot of shots.”
Granted, there’s still work to be done. Thomas’ reckless close out at the end of the third quarter yesterday, Ben Simmons fouling Doncic at mid court, and Cam Johnson’s pivotal flop from the opener all stick out as singular moments that really put Brooklyn’s defense in the doghouse.
Doncic pouring it on in the fourth was nothing to be proud of either. Prior to that final three, the Nets repeatedly failed to get a defender in his face out on the perimeter. Yes, Doncic was pulling it from several feet from beyond the arc at times, Brooklyn needs to know he’s capable of sinking such shots at this point.
Regardless, its all better than what we saw in the preseason, which was a team committed to the drop coverage even as teams continued to hid jumper off the space surrendered via the screen. Now Brooklyn’s shown us they can throw a variety of looks at their opponents which bodes well for the future.
This will be a taxing season for Nets fans
Sorry gang, back to doom and gloom. For years, the Nets benefitted from their star arsenal of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and occasionally James Harden. Time and time again when clutch time came knocking, the Nets had a guy to answer.
But now being a team built around depth and without someone to step up as “the guy,” Brooklyn’s on that dynamic’s opposite side. It showed last season as the team blew playoff leads vs the Philadelphia 76ers and during their last two games.
With the game on the line vs Cleveland, the Cavaliers turned to Donovan Mitchell, who promptly made all the plays down the stretch to steal a victory. The Nets countered with a low percentage Cam Johnson shot that was actually blocked by the 6’5” Max Strus and then a broken play for Bridges turned into a Thomas Hail Mary. Not what you want.
Last night, Doncic simply caught fire and the Nets had nobody to go toe-to-toe with him, except for maybe Royce O’Neale during a few sequences. He’s been a phenomenal role player since donning the Brooklyn threads, but if Rolls Royce is your go-to-guy, you have a problem.
Essentially, the Nets are good enough to hang with the NBA’s other playoff-hopeful teams. But in clutch situations, when team’s often turn to their stars, the Nets will be at a disadvantage.
Like having your bullpen blow a lead or fumbling on the goal line, there’s no worse feeling in sports than when you let something slip through your fingers. Because of how the Nets are constructed this year, they’ll likely find themselves stewing with more gut-wrenching losses like last night’s. Fans will want to batten down the hatches. It’s going to be fun this year, but it’s also going to be rough.