Even on New York’s coldest night in a long time, the visiting team from up north never looked comfortable at the Barclays Center. To be fair, the Nets were a bit out of rhythm as well, with both teams struggling to find consistent offensive cohesion.
Regardless, Brooklyn walked away with a 115-103 victory, notching their third straight dub in a row. Bobbing up and down on the .500 mark all season, they’re currently on the positive side of that equation, sitting tight with a 9-8 record.
It’s a bittersweet victory if you’re and In-Season Tournament enthusiast, as the Nets did not win by a large enough margin to acquire a wild card spot. With the Boston Celtics winning tonight too, the Nets will not advance past the group round.
Vegas will have to wait until next year, but the real season continues. Before we prepare for the Charlotte Hornets, here’s three things to gather from tonight.
Royce O’Neale Remains Mr. Clutch
Things Royce O’Neale does not fear: crunch time, close out defenders, anyone on the Toronto Raptors, and...death itself? Maybe.
The Big Meal finished with 18 points tonight, and boy did the Nets need them. All his offense came from beyond the arc, as he hit six triples on a night where his teammates combined to go just 7-of-26.
Two days before that, the Nets eclipsed that tally with 11 made triples in one quarter alone. O’Neale played a big hand in that as well. He’s gone nuclear, having hit six triples in back-to-back games. He accomplished that feat just once in his 461 games played before that.
All triples count the same, but don’t always feel the same. No shot is so frequently described as a “back breaker” in basketball more than a three, and tonight, O’Neale was like Bane in the second act of The Dark Knight Rises.
After Toronto seized a lead with about eight minutes to go in the contest, O’Neale splashed three straight shots from range in just over a minute. The burst gave Brooklyn a five point cushion that they never surrendered.
“Without a doubt, the right time,” said Jacque Vaughn when reflecting on the timing of O’Neale’s connections from deep. “He just continues to do it and continues to be an unbelievable teammate. A person that I love. I love coaching him. When he gets the right opportunity he takes advantage of it, and boy did he make some timely shots for us.”
O’Neale was understandably animated after those long range missiles found their target. The Raptors were understandably frustrated. O’Neale iced a one-point game against them last year via the three as well.
That game, this game, countless others in between, O’Neale has a knack for hitting shot on in the clutch that’s now translated from last year to this year. He came through with two-game winners vs the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers last year, the first two of his career. This season he’s already 4-5 from deep on clutch threes, leading his team.
“Being in the gym, keep shooting,” said O’Neale, with a smile on his face when asked to explain what’s behind his outbreak.
With O’Neale currently shooting a career-best 40.7 percent from deep, he’s my dark horse pick to get a bid to this year’s 3-point contest. If the league values the gravity of triples along with overall accuracy, there’s no reason he should not get that nod.
If he does, it’s going to be really funny when he takes the ball off the rack, does a dribble side step, and let’s it fly rather than just pulling it immediately.
And here’s fun fact: in the 461 games before this week, O’Neale had one game of six 3-pointers in his career. He’s had two in the last two games.
Mikal Bridges Making it Happen at All Three Levels
For all the negative attention centered around Mikal Bridges’ dipped 3-point percentage this year, nobody wants to talk about his increased efficiency inside the arc. I understand three is more than two, but after watching Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and a bit of LaMarcus Aldridge over the past few years, this fanbase should harbor some appreciation for the midrange.
Bridges came into this game shooting it from inside eight feet at a 58.7 percent clip and 54.5 percent clip from between eight and 16 feet. Both are upticks from last year, and his mark from between eight and 16 feet even represents a career-high.
Tonight, he shot 7-of-12 from those combined areas, safely above any even your most NBA University-obsessed person’s Mendoza line. Floaters and turn around fadeaway were both on display.
However, I was most impressed with Bridges’ first bucket, where he snuck past early DPOY candidate Scottie Barnes for a slick catch and finish inside. His transition euro step on Gary Trent Jr. in the fourth quarter is another one to stash in highlight tape too.
This is all evidence that Bridges is not only continuing his evolution from last year into a more complete scorer, but also an efficient one for that matter. Efficient buckets are efficient buckets, even if they don’t follow with a gun shooter celebration.
This is more than a silver lining amidst his “shortcomings” this year. It’s a key positive to his game that deserves some recognition on its own. It also goes hand-in-hand with the notion that Bridges is becoming a more complete basketball player, backed up Lucas Kaplan’s breakdown of his passing strides from last week.
He also did hit a three tonight for what its worth — far and away the most important one of the game.
Matchups vs Strong Wing Teams will be Rock Fights
Each team’s frigid shooting percentage tonight is a little bit understandable when you look at who was on the court.
The Nets are one of the league’s lengthiest teams with Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, and Nic Claxton on the switch manning the wings. But the Raptors could create their own Great Wall of China too with gunners such as Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and Jalen McDaniels.
“Defensively we were sound,” said Vaughn postgame. “Our guys rebound the basketball. I think our starting five at least had eight rebounds a piece, so that’s impressive against a long athletic team.”
The Nets indeed won the battle in the end, but it was like trench warfare out there. Both team shot below 45% from the field. Mr Whammy even came through with a solid performance, forcing seven misses from the line from Toronto.
The shared ability to switch, cover ground fast, and deter shots from a distance by each team makes them each other’s kryptonite, hence whey we got such an unexciting offensive affair. Unless the rotation goes through a major shakeup, the Nets could see games like this unfold against teams with personnel similar to that of Toronto all season.
If you’re and under better (aka you hate fun), target games against the Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks as potential money-making offensive duds in the near future.