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In first NBA Cup game, Brooklyn Nets complete comeback over Chicago Bulls

The Brooklyn Nets closed their four-game road-trip with another tight victory, this time over the Chicago Bulls, to open the In-Season Tournament

Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Friday night presented the first test of its kind for a Brooklyn Nets squad that’s not just been fun but off to a pretty good to start the season. They were facing the Chicago Bulls on the final leg of a four-game road trip, coming off a rousing, short-handed win against the Miami Heat to bring their record to 2-2.

The Nets were still short-handed in ChiTown, missing Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson, but guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Dennis Smith Jr. returned to try and propel their team to over .500 for the first time this season, as well as to a win over a team of similar ilk ... at least, according to pundits.

Prior to the season, Brooklyn and Chicago were each viewed as locks, not for the playoffs, but to be fighting for the Play-In Tournament by March. But the Nets entered action playing better ball than many expected, and the Bulls, at 2-3, were playing down to expectations. Hell, they were forced into a players-only meeting after a loss on Opening Night, and dropped a later game to the Detroit Pistons despite a Zach Lavine 50-piece. They sure do look like the same old Bulls.

That trend continued on Friday night, as the Nets rolled into the United Center and notched their third-straight win in, surprise surprise, another heart-stopper. Yes, you can craft a larger narrative out of every possible matchup between two NBA teams. But the Nets have loftier goals this season than merely contending for a play-in spot, and after handling the Bulls in game #5, those goals appear to be curiously, cautiously attainable.

Final score: Brooklyn 109, Chicago 107

The game marked the first chapter of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, the NBA Cup, as any fan who tuned in to the broadcast certainly noticed:

“The court was cute. You know, it was nice,” said Dorian Finney-Smith with a smile.

The Nets and Bulls are each in the Eastern Conference’s C-group, and the game was the first in pool play. Specifics aside, winning games will help the Nets advance in the tournament, and losing games will not, which is all that matters for now.

Perhaps the prize money for players (and now coaches, as Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Friday) from the Cup revved up the Nets, who opened the first quarter looking like anything but a team closing out a four-game road-trip. Brooklyn scored a dozen fast-break points in the frame while handing out 13 assists, more than half their season-average:

It was the ideal version of the Nets: a team forcing turnovers, running, and making 3-pointers. After the first 12 minutes ended with Brooklyn up 35-30, they extended their lead to 45-35 early in the second quarter on the strength of a three-guard lineup featuring Dinwiddie, Smith Jr., and Lonnie Walker IV.

That would wind up as Brooklyn’s largest lead of the night, however, as the offense soon grew stale. Chicago started to switch ball-screens and show heavy help defense against Brooklyn’s scorers, like Cam Thomas, for example:

Whether it was the Bulls’ adjustments, Brooklyn’s poor decision-making, or a mix of both, the offense slowed to a halt in the second quarter. Chicago took their opportunity and ran with it, literally, turning stops into transition buckets during a 14-0 run that flipped the game on its head...

The Bulls likely would’ve taken a lead into the locker-room if not for the play of Finney-Smith, who scored 16 points in the first half, including a perfect 4-of-4 from deep. More impressive, though, may have been his repeated drives to the bucket. Creating offense off-the-dribble has never been a strength for the ex-Maverick, often a ceiling-limiting weakness to his impact, but Finney-Smith’s clutch layup in Miami seemed to give him a boost in Chicago. Playing center in Claxton’s place, he was matched up with Nets killer par excellence Nikola Vucevic, and used his quickness to his advantage:

In a half where DeMar DeRozan (14 points) and Zach Lavine (13 points) shot well, Finney-Smith was the leading scorer, though, giving the Nets a 59-58 lead at halftime.

He was quick to divert praise during his halftime interview with Meghan Triplett of YES Network: “My teammates, man. They’ve been finding me whenever I'm open, yelling at me when I turn down shots.”

DFS, however, cooled off after halftime, missing each of his three attempts in the third quarter. His teammates followed suit, falling a long way from their explosive, 35-point first quarter. Sluggish, rather than sloppy, would be the operative word; the Nets weren’t turning the ball over, just missing shots, and the half-court offense suffered as a result — Brooklyn didn’t reach the 70-point mark until less than three minutes left in the third quarter. (However, they reached it in style:)

Despite Chicago building a seven-point lead and threatening to bury the Nets, Jacque Vaughn’s group played just enough defense to keep it close, setting the stage for a familiar bench unit to re-take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Dennis Smith Jr. took and missed some ugly jumpers in the first half, yes, but he scored all eight of his points during his second stint on the court. Walker shot just 1-4 from deep, but continuously used his athleticism to finish inside, leading the Nets with 11 points off the bench. And Dinwiddie took just seven shots, but he led Brooklyn’s most successful units on the night, finishing with nine assists, including this gorgeous lob to Day’Ron Sharpe:

Sharpe had a few nice moments of his own, making all three of his shots to finish with six points and ten boards, none bigger than this:

Vaughn’s new favorite guard-trio checked in with the Nets trailing 76-71 in the third quarter. By the time the last of them departed, Brooklyn was leading 96-93 halfway through the fourth quarter, and Dinwiddie had produced this ridiculous stat:

“That group that finished the end of the third and started the fourth, what a great charge by them to give us some energy and some life, and our group rallied around that,” said Vaughn.

It was a lead that the Nets would not relinquish, though the Bulls didn’t go quietly. LaVine and DeRozan each scored 24 points, but each took at least 20 shots. Chicago’s leading duo made some ridiculous shots, but the Nets made them work for ‘em.

Brooklyn’s closing duo was also their two 20-point scorers on the night, Finney-Smith (21 points) and Bridges (20 points), who each came up with huge drives and finishes as the seconds ticked away:

“I think that pace, people aren’t used to it in the fourth quarter,” said Vaughn of his team’s up-tempo offense. “We can continue to push the basketball in the fourth, and you saw that we had some really good looks in the fourth because we just continue to have that mindset that we’re going to push the basketball.”

For Bridges, it wasn't the type of game fans may have envisioned after his explosive end to last season, but it was arguably more impactful. We didn't see much ball-pounding or isolation attempts from the 27-year-old wing, but Bridges didn’t turn the ball over, dished three assists, played swarming defense on Zach LaVine with a two-point lead, then had the chance to nail free-throws to put the game away.

Vaughn credited Bridges’ “...mindset. I think overall, he’s grown into understanding when to put his foot down on the pedal.”

But nobody’s perfect. Bridges missed the second of two freebies, up 109-106, with the shot-clock turned off. Thus, Chicago had one last chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, so Vaughn instructed his team to foul LaVine before he could fire a game-tying shot up. Yet, that didn’t save Nets fans from more sweaty palms:

No pain, no gain, I guess. The Nets win, move to 3-2 and are now the leaders of Group C [East] in the NBA Cup Group Stage.

But despite the added stakes, with an eminently distracting court, this was Brooklyn Nets basketball to a T. All nine players who touched the court contributed positively — sure, Ben Simmons’ 8/9/6 line with four turnovers isn’t eye-popping, but he grabbed some major boards down the stretch and led Brooklyn’s best offense of the night: transition. Cam Thomas shot just 6of--18 to score 17 points, but he did drop four assists to zero turnovers, and came up with a big stop on DeMar DeRozan in clutch time, a rare feat. Royce O’Neale shot just 3-of-10, but his underrated playmaking continued, as he dropped eight assists.

We didn’t see the heroes of the Miami victory, Armoni Brooks or Trendon Watford, but we didn’t need to. Vaughn pressed all the right buttons (again) and the Nets won a thriller. As of late, that’s all they do.

Milestone Watch

  • When Sean Marks, Jacque Vaughn, and the players discussed wanting to play fast this pre-season, they weren’t kidding. With 21 fastbreak points in Chicago, the Nets have now scored 20+ fastbreak points in all five games this season. This is the longest streak of 20-fastbreak point games for the Nets. (Since at least 1996-97, the first season fastbreak points were tracked.)
  • And the ball-movement! Friday also marked Brooklyn’s fifth-straight 25-assist night, their longest streak of such games to start a season since 1984 (six straight). 5 straight
  • Finney-Smith’s 21-points secured his fifth-straight double-digit performance, matching the third-longest double-digit scoring streak of his career. DFS last scored in double figures in five or more straight games in the 2021-22 season.
  • Cam Thomas started his 10th career game on Friday, scoring 17 points. He has averaged 29.1 PPG through his first 10 starts, the most of any player to debut in the NBA since 1970-71, passing Michael Jordan (27.3 PPG).
  • The win moved the Nets to over .500 at 3-2, a mark they didn’t reach until game #23 last season.

Next Up

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets face a quick turnaround, returning home to the Barclays Center to take on the fearsome Boston Celtics on a back-to-back, who moved to 4-0 with a (coughs) 155-104 victory over the Indiana Pacers in their last game. Should be a fun test, at the very least!

Meanwhile, Jacque Vaughn had nothing much positive about the possibility of Nic Claxton returning to the court soon. “Nic has not participated in shootaround, I can say that to you. So if that leads you to any direction to seeing if Nic’s gonna be available tomorrow, probably not.”

Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. ET.