The Brooklyn Nets’ clash against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday was no nondescript regular-season game. Not only did the Nets enter at 8-8 with a chance to move above .500 by winning their third straight, but massive In-Season Tournament implications awaited them. A win over Toronto — along with other favorable outcomes from Tuesday’s NBA action — could vault the Nets into the knockout round of the inaugural NBA Cup.
“Everybody always loves extra incentives,” said Cam Johnson at shootaround. Everybody always loves [having] a little extra to play for, and tonight, we definitely have that.”
Day’Ron Sharpe agreed, saying he likes the tournament. “I feel like it’s giving us a better competitiveness, you know? These games, I feel like guys are really going hard and we are actually trying to win, and it’s a game you got to play from start to finish. Even when you are losing by a lot, you still got to play defense. You’re not trying to let the other team get more points.”
Of course, the beauty of the NBA Cup’s group stage is that even though the Toronto Raptors were already eliminated from the knockout round, they entered with their own battles to fight. Namely, trying to claw back to .500 after a loss dropped them to 8-9. In-Season tournament or not, there was no questioning each team’s motivation.
Not after three quarters of missed shots and questionable offensive execution from both teams, not even after Brooklyn’s hopes of advancing in the tournament were squashed elsewhere. The Nets and Raptors went shot-for-shot down the stretch in an exciting, if uneven finish, and the home team prevailed to notch their third-straight win.
Final score: Brooklyn 115, Toronto 103
Perhaps the Nets and Raptors were trying a little too hard to open Tuesday night’s action. Brooklyn took the first timeout of the game halfway through the first quarter, trailing by an NFL-like 7-6.
Thankfully, the action picked up as the Nets and Raptors traded buckets and leads. Mikal Bridges scored eight points in the opening frame to the hosts to a slim 22-21 advantage, getting to the rim while adding a characteristic middy:
Tough one-legged fade from Mikal Bridges: pic.twitter.com/dJa51A2B2x— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 29, 2023
Had the teams conjured up some of the 3-point magic of Sunday night, when the Nets and Chicago Bulls combined to hit 13 treys in the first quarter, we really would have been cooking with gas. Alas, Brooklyn and Toronto combined to shoot just 3-of-17 in the first 12 minutes, and continued their rock fight in the second quarter.
Day’Ron Sharpe and Nic Claxton rotated at the center position, and each provided an interior scoring presence that outweighed Toronto’s paint-heavy attack:
Nic Claxton's offense continues to grow, this time with a right-hand finish: pic.twitter.com/FAgoqZfApu— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 29, 2023
“Our bigs were phenomenal tonight, with Nic and Day’Ron coming over to protect the rim. We limited their ability to get to the rim tonight,” said Jacque Vaughn.
Prior to the game, Brooklyn identified their opponent as a greater threat from inside than outside; Sharpe emphasized the effort to “Make them stay out of the paint, limit transition attempts, make them shoot more threes....”
In the first half, the Nets accomplished their defensive goals. Brooklyn won the points-in-the-paint battle 32-20, and they reaped the benefits of a poor outside-shooting team jacking up threes; Toronto shot just 5—of-19 (26.3%) from range in the first half. All was going swimmingly for the Brooklyn Nets, except they forgot to score for over four minutes in the second quarter, watching a 35-30 lead evaporate into a 42-35 deficit.
Their defense, however, held on for long enough to right the ship. Claxton blocked three shots in the first half and altered many more turning the paint into a no-fly zone for the Raptors. While the Nets were struggling to score, their starting center made sure his team would have ample opportunities. And as the half wound down, Brooklyn capitalized.
Royce O’Neale made a three following one of his signature pump-fakes:
Then, Spencer Dinwiddie hit back-to-back bombs, bringing him to 13 points and four assists in another solid half of play. Suddenly, the Nets were closing the half on a 15-0 run, righting the previous quarter-closing wrongs of the season to take a 52-44 lead into the locker room. The Barclays Center has seen some drastic momentum shifts this past week, and Tuesday was no different.
Yet, Brooklyn’s hopes of winning their NBA Cup group dwindled, despite their own success. The Boston Celtics took a 19-point lead into halftime of their game against Bulls, putting them in the driver’s seat of Group C. A wild card berth still beckoned for the Nets, but it’d require quite a bit of help.
Brooklyn still had to take care of their own business, of course, but did themselves no favors in the third quarter, doubling their turnovers from the first half as the Raptors found their first offensive groove. The visitors e-took the lead at 66-65 on a Gary Trent Jr. triple with five minutes left in the period, and scoreboard-watching became secondary. The Nets had to grind out a win against the grindiest of teams on a poor shooting night, no small task on its own.
Their offense took a nosedive, not necessarily missing shots but failing to generate high-quality possessions. Far too often, Mikal Bridges & co. were relegated to bystanders as Spencer Dinwiddie attacked various Raptors, occasionally able to draw a foul but otherwise unsuccessful. As a result, Brooklyn’s starting point guard posted one of the oddest statlines ( confined to just one quarter of play) you’ll see:
Spencer Dinwiddie in the 3Q:— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 29, 2023
8 points, no assists, no turnovers.
0-7 FG, 0-5 3PT
The Nets entered the fourth quarter clinging to a 1-point lead, 97-96, and it stayed close right down to the wire. With the Celtics turning their blowout of the Bulls into a total laugher and the New York Knicks wrapping up the Wild Card with a big win, NBA Cup stakes for the Nets died. But hey, there was a regular-season game to win, and the intensity wavered not one bit.
In fact, the fourth quarter saw both teams for the first time all night. Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher made jumper after jumper, combining to score ___ points on ____ shooting off the Raptors’ bench:
I love it when Scottie gets into this mode.— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) November 29, 2023
Orchestrates and tells everyone where to go.
Creates an open 3 for Boucher. pic.twitter.com/872yU05Msx
Royce O’Neale went shot for shot with Toronto’s bench, exploding for four 3-point makes in the final frame on his way to 18 points, none bigger than these:
This is the ultimate Royce O'Neale three, a clutch dagger off a pump-fake: pic.twitter.com/0ZNa366uR8— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 29, 2023
“Man, we need him,” said Bridges of his fellow wing. “I mean, especially at the end...if it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t be that close or we wouldn’t be up. So those are just great shots and you know, Royce shoots the heck out of ball. Just happy he’s making my job easier, getting me some easy assists.”
After a dreadful start for Brooklyn shooting the ball, O’Neale led a late charge, and the Nets finished a respectable 13-of-38 from deep, good for 34.2%. Elsewhere, Dinwiddie had a quiet fourth quarter in terms of scoring, but finished with a chaotic 23/9/8 stat-line, even adding four steals. Mikal Bridges made some timely buckets in the second half to finish with 22/10/5, but did add five turnovers.
Cam Johnson added 18/9/3 and displayed an ever-increasing scoring craft, particularly inside the arc:
Cam Johnson, wow. Low crossover to dust OG Anunoby, pinoy step to finish at the rim. This game is ugly, but this play wasn't: pic.twitter.com/PZPV29JMOs— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 29, 2023
The Brooklyn Nets certainly accomplished their specific goals against Toronto; all five starters grabbed at least eight boards en route to a 59-46 advantage on the glass. The Nets and Raptors each made 13 threes while the points-in-the-paint battle ended how it started, a 50-34 win for Brooklyn.
Said Vaughn: “Gary Trent made some pull-up twos and we didn’t panic with that, we stayed with our coverage. He ended up missing some, and we ended up rebounding the basketball, and the shot profile that we wanted at the end of the game manifested into a win for us.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if Toronto’s main options played as well as their bench. Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam combined to shoot 11-of-37, each leading their team with 17 points; they ended the game unable to solve Nic Claxton’s rim protection. Claxton ended the night with a game-high +20 in the plus-minus column, an occasionally misleading stat that told nothing but the truth against Toronto.
Vaughn cited “the belief I have in [Claxton] to be a rim protector for us,” postgame. “And you see how beneficial it is, that he bails us out multiple times throughout the course of the night. Then he’s just a deterrent also at the rim, like people know he’s back there. So you’re thinking about that. So that just helps our defense right there.”
Tuesday’s action at the Barclays Center was a resounding aesthetic success vis-á-vis the NBA Cup. The court looked great and both teams played hard, though the results of games in Boston and Manhattan rendered Nets-Raptors an afterthought by the end. It didn’t matter. However, the excitement wasn’t reflected in the attendance which at 15,844 was 1,500 below Barclays Center capacity. Specifically, attendance Tuesday was 89.4% of arena capacity of 17,732 for NBA games. The Nets have been running at better than 17,500 which is roughly 99%.
Brooklyn didn’t shoot the lights out, and the basketball was ugly more often than not. Yet, the Nets rebounded, moved the rock, protected the paint, and hit just enough shots to come away with a win to lift everybody’s spirits. Does missing out on the knockout round of the first ever NBA Cup sting a bit? Perhaps. But moving to 9-8 and sealing a three-game winning streak? That’s not a bad consolation prize.
The star of today’s Milestone Watch is Royce O’Neale, who continues to shoot the nylon off the net.
- O’Neale has made six 3-pointers in two straight games after reaching the mark once in his first 461 career games. Madness. It’s also the first time he's made at least five 3-pointers in consecutive games.
- Spencer Dinwiddie’s four steals matched Mikal Bridges’ performance on 11/14 vs. Orlando for the most steals in a game by a Brooklyn Net this season. Dinwiddie has also scored 20 points in three out of the last four games.
- Nic Claxton has now posted three blocks in six out of eight games played this season, and reclaimed his throne as the NBA’s leading shot-blocker (on a per-possession basis). His 23 blocks this season are the third most by a Net through eight games, trailing two predictable names: Shawn Bradley with 41, and Darryl Dawkins with 34.
- Fun stat for the night: every starter had at least eight rebounds (and O’Neale had seven) off the bench), per our ProfessorB.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Cam Thomas were upgraded to questionable and doubtful, respectively, prior to being ruled out for Tuesday’s action. That would hint that each guard is close to returning, right? Jacque Vaughn confirmed such intuitions during his pregame presser, saying each, “played in some simulated — I don’t know, vs. other teammates. It’s kind of tough on a gameday, a little bit vs. coaches also, but some sort of simulated [action], as much as we can do on a gameday: 4-on-4, 5-on-5, full-court. They’re both trending in the direction of hopefully playing with us soon.”
The Nets’ head coach also addressed Cam Johnson’s recent bout with leg cramping, which forced an early exit for the 27-year-old in two of Brooklyn’s last three games. Said Vaughn: “We’re trying to do things behind the scenes to hopefully that doesn’t happen again. But you’ll probably see shorter stints and shorter minutes from him, in all honesty, just as I take a pulse of how he’s playing.”
All in all, Johnson played 27 minutes on the night, hardly down from his season of 30. Vaughn may be operating with a tad more caution than normal, but it doesn’t seem to be a major issue as of now. Fingers crossed.
No NBA Cup action here. The Brooklyn Nets will play the fourth of five straight at the Barclays Center when they take on a Charlotte Hornets team now down LaMelo Ball (ankle). Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday night.
- Box Score: Brooklyn Nets 115, Toronto Raptors 103 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Brooklyn Nets 115, Toronto Raptors 103 (Video) - NBA
- Royce O’Neale on win over Raptors (Video) - Meghan Triplett - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn recaps 115-103 win over Raptors (Video) - YES Network
- Nic Claxton on Nets’ win over Raptors (Video) - YES Network
- Lonnie Walker IV gives back to community (Video) - YES Network
- Despite 115-103 win over Raptors, Nets knocked out of NBA In-Season Tournament - Denis Gorman - AP
- Nets’ win over Raptors not enough to advance in NBA In-Season Tournament - Dan Martin - New York Post
- Cam Thomas and Dennis Smith Jr. closing in on Nets returns - Dan Martin - New York Post
- Cam Thomas nearing return from ankle injury as Nets get healthier - Dan Martin - New York Post
- Nets overcome slow start against Raptors but will not advance in In-Season tournament after 115-103 victory ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets embrace benefits of In-Season Tournament as group play winds down ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets beat Raptors but are eliminated from NBA In-Season Tournament on point differential ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets knocked out of 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament despite win - John Flanigan - SNY
- Raptors’ loss in Brooklyn stings now, could hurt more later ($) - Doug Smith - Toronto Star