After two devastating losses, the Brooklyn Nets are right back where they started at .500, with a 2-2 record and currently riding the season’s first winning streak. The wins have been polar opposites: Monday’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets was nice and easy, as the Nets took care of a subpar opponent and never slipped into danger in the second half.
Wednesday's win against the Miami Heat, however, was a fight until the very end. The Nets were not only missing four rotation players, including three starters, but they found themselves in a 15-point hole in the third quarter against the defending Eastern Conference champions on game three of a four-game road trip. Not how you draw it up.
But Brooklyn fought and fought, got contributions from all ten guys who saw the floor, including some surprises, and lo and behold, they got a feel-great win that makes up for much of the pain of the first two losses.
Here are three takeaways from Brooklyn’s 109-105 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night.
The Nets Have a Real Identity
No matter who is in the starting five — Jacque Vaughn has been forced to use three different ones already — and who’s coming off the bench, the Nets are sticking to the principles they preached and preached during the pre-season. And it doesn’t matter if they’re in drop coverage or not, which they largely haven’t used since the opener, given Nic Claxton’s injury and Day’Ron Sharpe’s ineffectiveness.
They’re rebounding the ball and pushing in transition, scoring 20+ fastbreak points in each of their first four games this season, marking their longest streak of games with 20+ fastbreak points since the 2002-03 season. (A point guard named Kidd was running the show back then.)
“You see me two minutes to go in the game, I was still telling our guys to run. It’s the best offense that we have,” said Vaughn after the big win.
Yet, it’s the rebounding that’s been more impressive for Brooklyn to start the season — they’ve grabbed more boards than their opponent in every game so far. Part of it is Brooklyn’s season-mark of 41.7% from deep, second-best in the league and limiting the amount of missed shots their opponent even has the chance to grab. But a bigger part of it is the communication and, yes, effort from the forwards tasked with guarding players like Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo grabbed one offensive board in the fourth quarter, Miami’s only one of their 22-point period. Brooklyn consistently scram-switched Adebayo’s screens, meaning after the initial switch up top, a bigger forward, often Royce O’Neale, would come save whatever guard got stuck on Bam:
And while Adebayo doesn’t fight particularly hard to grab that board, O’Neale makes sure there’s no chance by greeting him with extra physicality. Rebounding, of course, is a team effort, and O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, among others, were often helped out by their smaller teammates, but those guys deserve much of the credit.
The Nets are playing really, really hard, as Vaughn promised his team would. Prior to the game, Erik Spoelstra said, “we have to make this team feel us. We have to get after them in our building, we have to make them uncomfortable. It’s going to take great efforts to do that.”
Yet, despite their lack of size, despite the communication and physicality it takes to successfully scram switch against one of the NBA’s premier athletes at the center position, it was the Nets who took it to the Heat and made them uncomfortable in winning time.
Brooklyn’s rebounding and running, regardless of who’s on the floor for their opponent or themselves. That might be the takeaway of the season so far.
Trendon Watford’s Appeal Looks Familiar
At the start of the season, it’s easy to sour on depth as a team-building concept. Not that it doesn’t matter, but after watching post-season basketball, where top-end talent wins titles, it’s easy to forget that the 12th man will swing the occasional regular season game.
That’s what Trendon Watford and Armoni Brooks did on Wednesday night. Brooks’ appeal is obvious; the dude can shoot the pill. From deep range, off the dribble, on the move, Brooks, playing on a two-way contract, is a certified 3-point sniper who is one passable secondary skill away from being a rotation staple in the NBA. Perhaps his 17-point performance for Brooklyn in Miami was the start of that. Wednesday night’s game was his first in the NBA since April 2022.
Watford’s appeal is a bit less obvious, though Portland Trail Blazer fans will tell you the size and skill is worth taking more than a chance on. After a strong pre-season and a hell of a Nets debut, Brooklyn fans may agree. Watford can maybe kinda shoot, a career 34% 3-point shooter, but can certainly handle and see the floor exceptionally well at 6’9”.
It was hard to watch Watford’s play against the Heat overlap with a brutal Ben Simmons performance crinkle your forehead. I mean, a fake dribble-handoff for two at the top of the key? Have we seen Simmons do that yet?
Forget the go-ahead 3-pointer Watford nailed, an attempt that drew an aggressive closeout mind you — the biggest difference between Watford and Simmons in similar roles on Wednesday was Watford’s scoring aggression that led to 11 points on six shots.
He took two floaters against one-on-one coverage and neither went in, but T-Wat drew a shooting foul and the first and followed up the second with a put-back layup. There was also this play, a coast-to-coast grab-and-go that really reminds Nets fans of the idea of Simmons:
Now this is the good stuff from Trendon Watford, and the Nets are within three! pic.twitter.com/ihitKysK4V— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 2, 2023
Meanwhile, Simmons himself had four turnovers, the last of which came at a huge moment and was a result of an early, unsure dribble-pickup, albeit against Bam Adebayo:
Look, I know Simmons is making max money and will start next to Claxton when they’re both healthy. Vaughn isn’t going to give up on his preferred starting lineup after one game together, and he shouldn't. But Watford can space the floor a little while providing playmaking next to Claxton. How long before Vaughn has to give some serious thought to splitting up the Simmons/Claxton front-court and unleashing the coolest front-court duo in the league in ClaxFord? (Nickname still a work in progress. WatClax?)
I do not envy Jacque Vaughn
I really don’t. While this newfound depth is certainly a treat for Brooklyn, as they are seemingly rostering at least a dozen NBA-level contributors, it does create one problem, probably one the ever-optimistic Jacque Vaughn would call a good problem to have: He’s going to have to make tons of tough decisions.
A week after getting ripped to shreds for his late-game substitution patterns on Opening Night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had to make more tough decisions in Miami (not to mention the game against the Dallas Mavericks). With Watford and Brooks rolling, he subbed those two out in favor of Simmons and Finney-Smith, then subbed Lonnie Walker IV out for Cam Thomas.
I was particularly upset at Thomas, who played a horrendous game not 12 hours after I published an article discussing how high his floor was if his offensive process remained sound. It didn’t. Forget the 4-of-19 shooting night for a moment, Thomas had four turnovers and the defensive film was fairly disastrous, despite what three steals in the box score indicate.
Worse yet was his decision-making, exemplified by the second-quarter sequence where Thomas hit a 3-pointer, his first make of the game, then pulled up from 25 feet on a 5-on-4 break on the next possession. That Vaughn closed with him over Walker, Brooks, or Watford should finally dismiss any notions that Thomas is treated unfairly by his head coach, or that he won’t be allowed to play through his struggles.
Simmons was also nearly as bad as he was against Cleveland, racking up four turnovers yet being trusted to close the game. I do not envy Jacque Vaughn, whose rapid substitution patterns will be the main story after every loss, despite how well he has the Nets playing through four games. There will always, always be an opportunity to criticize his decisions, just because he’s making so many during the fourth quarter.
Those subbing patterns are one way to take advantage of the very real depth the Nets have this season, and they’ve largely worked. Not having a ball-handler like Dinwiddie to close the Cleveland game was an egregious mistake, but it’s far from a damning one.
Vaughn closing with Simmons and Thomas against Miami, despite their performances up to that point, is proof that the man is loyal. To a fault? Perhaps. But hey, when you win, there’s no second-guessing. And the Brooklyn Nets picked up a huge win on Wednesday night.