The Brooklyn Nets hoped back into their rollercoaster cart last night in the Windy City, this time going up and down alongside Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and the Chicago Bulls. With the Nets having now seen four of their first five games all decided by five points or less, it’s on you if you were alarmed or worse by all the abrupt cuts, swings, and twists.
Brooklyn ended the contest on top, pushing themselves above .500 for the first time in this young season. Some clutch buckets from Cam Thomas and Mikal Bridges got them there in the end. The Nets did nearly fumble the contest away in a similar fashion to their heartbreaker vs the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, but again, that was all part of the fun.
The Nets will now take on their first back-to-back sequence this year, dashing back to the Barclays Center for another bout this evening. But before they take on the juggernaut Boston Celtics, here’s a few things you should gather from the win in ChiTown.
Cam Thomas is Vital Even on a Cold Night
For a second straight game the Nets did not get another god-level performance from Cam Thomas, but needed him to emerge victorious all the same.
Last night Thomas finished with 17 points while shooting 6-of-18 from the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. His human flame thrower first couple games as a starter in his career helped push his average scoring figures to start the season into GOAT territory.
Cam Thomas started his 10th career game on Friday, scoring 17 points.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 4, 2023
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). pic.twitter.com/5PSj9XOFH0
But even after experiencing some tough sledding in Jordan’s house last night, the Nets still turned to Thomas down the stretch. That decision paid off as Brooklyn got two game winning plays from him: a triple with two minutes left to make it a two-possession game and a key stop on DeRozan.
I'd like to point out this excellent defensive possession from Cam Thomas after Chicago hunts him out with the game on the line:— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) November 4, 2023
Picks DeRozan up high, slides his feet, and gives a great contest without fouling.
Cam is making serious strides on that end of the floor. pic.twitter.com/CAHkPHQkVc
With his own highs and lows, its become clear that win or lose, the Nets are going to do it with Cam Thomas. He’s got a bit of leash now, which has to come as a relief to Thomas and his supporters, as Brooklyn’s coaching staff has become notorious for handcuffing him to the bench oftentimes for weeks on end during his first two seasons as a pro.
Thomas also finished the game with zero turnovers and four assists. His improved court vision helping him to pass out of doubles, shot selection, and overall playmaking contributed both to the win last night and this increased slack of late.
Thankfully for Brooklyn any sort of decision to make Thomas “the guy” is one that still comes with wide array of leeway. The Nets still have Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson at some point and several other on their utility belt, all capable of taking up some of the scoring load should Thomas turn in a less efficient outing such as last night’s. Dorian Finney-Smith has played the role often so far this year. He led the Nets in scoring last evening with 21 points while shooting 5-of-9 from deep.
To tie this in a bow, the Nets seem to have finally acknowledged that Thomas is a guy who needs to be on the court during pivotal moments — but are also equipped to pivot away from him for a few sequences should they see fit. That’s a good spot to be in.
Reintegrating Claxton Could be Challenging
With the Nets carrying three all-defensive team candidates in Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges, and Nic Claxton, backed by the likes of Dorain-Finney Smith, Royce O’Neale, Cam Johnson, and Dennis Smith Jr., many expected the Nets to headline as one of the league’s best defensive teams this year. At the other end, with the team lacking spacing around Simmons, their offense looked like a lock to struggle out of the gates.
So naturally, the Nets started this season as a top-10 scoring unit and bottom half defensive team!
You never want to mess something that’s working, and although Brooklyn’s defense at times looks soft without Claxton down low, their offense has been humming without him thanks to Finney-Smith’s spacing.
In Brooklyn’s long game with Clax the team hoisted up just 27 threes and shot 33.3 percent on them. In all the others they’ve averaged 39.3 attempts from deep (fifth most in NBA across that period) and have shot 42.7 percent on them (second best in NBA). They’re also a Luka Doncic banked-in baseball throw from a perfect record.
It’s a simple formula. With four shooters on the floor planted around an elite distributor in Simmons, the Nets can threaten from everywhere, stretch the floor, and find good looks from deep. Claxton and Simmons together contrarily clog up the paint.
Dorian Finney Smith has been Brooklyn's unsung hero with Nic Claxton out early this year:— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) November 4, 2023
50% from three (7.2 attempts per game)
Huge performance tonight keeping the Nets within striking distance in the 1st half then making consecutive big shots late. pic.twitter.com/UQlpKcD0s4
But this is an even simpler concept: teams are better when they’re best players are playing. Claxton is one of Brooklyn’s best players, so it’s not like the Nets will bench him just because their offense has experienced an uptick without him. They need him one way or another.
I don’t have an answer here as far as how the Nets will merge this offensive renaissance with a Claxton return. We’re likely going to see some extensive lineup experimentation until they figure it out. Regardless, a difficult task for Jacque Vaughn is brewing.
We Be Dancin’ Again!
Call this puff piece takeaway if you want, but I see a TikToks of the 2018-19 Nets bench come up on my phone every day. The Nets had an animated, demonstrative, and fun bench before the 7/11 era and it clearly meant something to people.
There’s no real “superstar” with this Nets team — so there’s no hierarchy like in years past. With depth and (trigger warning) “culture” returning to the Nets this year, its no coincidence that camaraderie has done the same.
You saw the Nets bench go wild a couple times during Thomas’s three rippers to open up the season. They had some moments during the team’s thrilling dub over the Heat as well.
Dennis Smith Jr. repeatedly yelling "that's my dawg" after Trendon Watford's go-ahead three is great energy: pic.twitter.com/aGXMMozahp— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 2, 2023
Harry Giles III seemed to pop up from his seat on the bench during every Nets shot attempt as the barreled down the stretch with Chicago. The birthday boy Jalen Wilson was right by his side. By my count Claxton’s been there for every game since his injury as well.
Day'Ron Sharpe with a really impressive o-board and finish. Harry Giles flexing all over the place on the bench: pic.twitter.com/hMIFBhzo5A— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 4, 2023
You’ll never beat the original, but I’d bet were only a couple weeks away from a Nets content creator remastering the Playboi Carti bench reel from a couple years ago with what we’re seeing right now.