Third time was the charm for the Brooklyn Nets last night, as they finally figured out how to win one in Buzz City.
Even with the Hornets resembling one of the league’s least intimidating foes, there was no guarantee of a Nets victory. The team entered the bout with two of its top weapons on the shelf in Nic Claxton and Cameron Johnson. Spencer Dinwiddie joined them at halftime as well.
Still, Brooklyn prevailed on the shoulders of Cam Thomas, who poured in 33 points. Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Ben Simmons, and Lonnie Walker all added support to push the team across the finish line and dodge a dreary 0-3 start to the season.
With Brooklyn forced to feature new rotations and new schemes minus three starters last night, close watchers could walk away with three new takeaways about the team even just three games into the 2023-24 campaign.
Small Ball is a Viable Option Minus Claxton
Claxton looked like the Defensive Player of the Year candidate we expect him to be during Brooklyn’s opener vs the Cavaliers. He came away with three blocks and made it a quiet night for rising star Evan Mobley.
Like any other team, the Nets are at their best when their best players are playing — but anyone who knows this team also knows that the injury bug has taken a liking to Brooklyn over the past few years. Said bug’s appetite was on display earlier than ever this season with Clax already down alongside Johnson and Dinwiddie. (Claxton missed only one game to injury last season, his other five absences were due to rest and personal day.)
At least for the time being, the Nets need to move forward without their anchor down low, and running with Finney-Smith as their “small ball” 5 is an option worth investing in.
To be clear, I think this only works with Simmons on the floor. The size he carries as the team’s “point guard” makes up for the size lost at the center position — which honestly is not that much when you consider Claxton’s skinnier frame.
But more importantly, Simmons and Brooklyn’s offense have looked their best over these last two games with the improved spacing provided by Finney-Smith. While DFS hit some tough shots against Cleveland (10 points, 33.3% from three), he’s been on another level in his past two contests (15.5 points, 50.0% ), threatening from deep and stretching the defense to open things up.
Looking for the best shot pic.twitter.com/mQezabFKrH— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) October 31, 2023
Being a non-shooting, pass-first guy who can penetrate a defense, Simmons needs spacing around him like a fish needs water.
In Brooklyn’s first contest, Simmons failed to finish the game as the offense became stagnant with exception to Thomas. But in his past two, he logged 30+ minutes, feeding his team on the break and even finding success in the half court.
The Nets also got up 43 triples (48.8%) in game two, and then 33 (36.4%) last night. In their first game they put up only 27 attempts and shot 33.3% on them. After that first game, the Nets also sat tight at 13th in the league in scoring, but over the last two games have ascended to second place(!!)
Small sample size? Absolutely. This isn’t a call for the Nets to totally abandon Claxton and Simmons playing together and go full P.J. Tucker Houston Rockets mode. But if opportunities to play small arise, go for it. There’s enough proof in the pudding both from the eye test and the analytics to let it rip for at least a few sequences each game, especially with Day’Ron Sharpe still looking to figure it out.
Lonnie Walker IV is your Spencer Dinwiddie Backup
We saw Lonnie Walker IV show out at times during the playoffs last year while donning the purple and gold. He did the same during the preseason, then in game two, and in game three for the Nets this year.
Whatever reason Jacque Vaughn had to not play him in that first game for Brooklyn has to be out the door at this point.
Able to penetrate the defense, create his own shot, and catch-and-shoot when called upon there’s not much Walker cannot do on the offensive end, making him a worthy place holder for the injured Dinwiddie.
Thomas should remain a starter for Brooklyn when Johnson and Dinwiddie both return. There’s no denying that after his historic start to the season. But if the Nets go on longer without them both, it has to be Walker picking up the extra slack.
It’s not like the Nets have an excess of options here. Thrusting Jalen Wilson or Armoni Brooks into 20+ minutes every night makes zero sense with them both yet to play at all this season. Dennis Smith Jr. came through with some nice sequences at both ends of the floor earlier this year, but he’s yet half as comfortable as Walker does in this Nets offense.
The Nets made a point of signing Walker this offseason and now have an early opportunity to show why they believe in him.
The Rebounding Plague Just Might be Over
I knocked on wood three times before typing this one out, as the Nets struggled on the glass like no other team for the past decade or so. But somehow, some way, the Nets have won the rebounding battle in all three of their games so far this year.
They did that for three straight games only twice during all of last year.
Brooklyn weaving the drop coverage into their switch defense at times likely has something to do with that. It’s made boxing out a far easier task and you can see the Nets doing better to gang rebound this year as well.
To be fair though, the Nets have not exactly gone against a gauntlet of rebounding teams to start out their campaign this year.
The Cavaliers more or less lost their playoff series vs the Knicks last year due to their inability to rebound especially at the defensive end. Both the Mavericks and the Hornets have been notorious over the past few years for not having a true center at to clean up the glass either.
Out of all three takeaways, feel free to take this one with a bit lighter than the rest, but fans should enjoy it all the same. The Nets also gave up a historic amount of second chance points in the playoffs last season as well.
The team’s inability to sign a backup big this summer left many worried that another dormant rebounding season may be lurking around the corner this year too. But through the team’s three games that has not been the case. I’ll leave it at that.