The Brooklyn Nets are back from a joyous, inspiring road trip. Following a brutal loss at the hands of an indescribable 3-pointer from Luka Doncic, the Nets won their final three games on the road, capped off by a 109-107 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Friday night to move to 3-2 on the season.
Yet Saturday’s contest, the first at the Barclays Center since Opening Night, felt like a brace-for-impact situation. Despite how well (and fun) the Nets played over their first five games, they were facing as big of an uphill battle as you could draw up for a regular-season matchup. Not only was Brooklyn on the second leg of the dreaded multi-timezone back-to-back, but they were facing a 4-0 Boston Celtics squad coming off a 155-104 victory over the Indiana Pacers (really), followed by two full days of rest. Gulp.
Any matchup against the Celtics is a clenched-fists one, but this would hardly be an inexcusable loss for Brooklyn, particularly coming on the heels of a three-game winning streak. A win, however? Over the best team in the Eastern Conference? Down Cam Johnson, Nic Claxton, and Ben Simmons, missing the night with “scheduled maintenance” for his back, per Jacque Vaughn? Well, wouldn’t that be something?
It almost was. The Nets fought through fatigue, with all five starters logging 35+ minutes, to give the well-rested, mighty Celtics all they could handle. Brooklyn battled back from multiple double-digit deficits, even cutting it to one measly point late in the fourth quarter. But the Nets simply couldn’t hit the big shot, pushing the boulder up the hill over and over again, running out of gas each time.
Final score: Boston 124, Brooklyn 114.
The Nets debuted their city edition uniforms and court against Celtics, a collaboration with Brooklyn-based artist and New Jersey native, KAWS:
First look at the Nets’ City Edition court for 2023-24. pic.twitter.com/cQq74QIrIj— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) November 4, 2023
AW, MADE YOU LOOK— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) November 5, 2023
Our 2023-24 City Edition x KAWS Open Video pic.twitter.com/jBJJQqKi8x
Perhaps the colorful, bubbly artwork adorning Saturday’s contest lulled those involved into believing it was merely an exhibition. That’s how the game was played in the first quarter, with half-hearted defense and frequent isolation offense for both teams. While the Celtics couldn’t miss inside the arc, the Nets certainly put a smile on Jacque Vaughn’s face by registering zero turnovers in a 34-34 first period.
Boston certainly would have jumped out to an early lead if not for the play of Lonnie Walker, who was tagged as questionable with left knee soreness an hour before tip, only for the game-time decision to go his way. Thank goodness it did, because Walker wasted no time continuing to produce off the bench.
The 24-year-old guard checked into a 22-13 Celtics lead, and, within two minutes of game-time, registered nine points and an assist.
Lonnie Walker has nine points and an assist in his first two minutes on the court, just keeps hooping. Knee looks fine, too: pic.twitter.com/I1nQzslZt3— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 5, 2023
Prior to the game, Vaughn praised Walker’s “...ability to get to the paint, the ability to get to the rim which is huge for us, the decision-making I didn’t know that he had,” all of which were on display as soon as Walker checked in.
Only the Celtics kept up the pace in the second quarter, which allowed them to open up a 70-58 lead heading into the locker room. Dorian Finney-Smith continued to torch the nylon, scoring 11 points on 3-6 from three in the first half, but his teammates couldn’t keep up with him. Non-DFS Nets combined to shoot just 5-23 from deep (21.7%), creating long rebounds for the Celtics to run out on. Brooklyn turned the ball over just once in the first half, but gave up eight fastbreak points and many more semi-transition opportunities.
No amount of color on their jerseys could make up for the tired legs the Nets seemed to have as the game wore on, not against a Celtics team that registered their third-straight 70-point first half. This one was led by Jayson Tatum, who scored 21 points in the half, reaching 10,000 in a career that looks real impressive at just 25 years old:
The Celtics may have celebrated Tatum’s accomplishment in the locker room, figuring they were in for smooth sailing in a second half where Brooklyn’s tired legs were sure to grow more weary. Any celebrations were premature, as the Nets didn’t lay down, as they haven't all season.
Mikal Bridges shot just 1-9 in the first half, but made his first three looks to open the third, revving up the Nets fans in a fairly green Barclays Center crowd. Then, the backcourt started to cook. Cam Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie combined for a respectable 19 points on 7-15 shooting in the first half, but then took off.
Frequently targeting Boston’s weak link on defense (often Sam Hauser) Thomas and Dinwiddie got pure, unadulterated buckets, combining for 20 in the third quarter alone. Dinwiddie did it his way, either getting right to the cup with his long strides, or using the threat of them to pull up from deep to finish with 19/6/6 on 8-14 shooting. Thomas, in turn, did it his way, creating impossible looks however he could that, naturally, fell right through the cup:
Cam Thomas' ability to adjust in mid-air is still so ridiculous. What is this? pic.twitter.com/WTbCrY3utL— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 5, 2023
The Nets made their mark in the third, particularly against a thinner-than-usual Celtics bench that was missing Derrick White (personal reasons), and entered the fourth quarter down just 91-88.
They'd get as close as one, trailing 96-95 after a 3-pointer from Dennis Smith Jr., whose offense was otherwise a mixed bag but accounted for two blocks and a steal in 15 minutes. Hopes of a comeback ended there, though. After a hot third quarter, Bridges and Thomas fell back to Earth, each shooting under 50% for the third consecutive game. The Nets needed a couple more step-backs and pull-ups from the two to fall, but their legs just weren’t there. Brooklyn’s two leading scorers combined to shoot just 18-44 on the night.
Thomas made a couple garbage time buckets to finish with 27 points on 11-24 shooting, as did Bridges to score 19 on 7-20. Royce O’Neale, starting in Simmons’ place, shot just 2-15, including a remarkably ugly 2-13 from three; the coaching staff has urged him to let it fly, and he's obliged. They just didn’t fall vs. Boston. Finney-Smith followed up a loud first half with a quiet second, making just one shot to score 14 points.
Somehow, the Celtics shot only marginally better than Brooklyn from deep (33.3% to 32.7%). Yet, their offense had a much easier time battling through the bricks. Tatum finished with 32 MVP-type points, controlling the offense and bending the Nets’ D to his whims. Jaylen Brown couldn’t buy a jumper (7-22), but got to the line eight times to finish with 23, and Kristaps Porzingis used his size to drop in 22 easy points on just ten shots, most of them assisted. Ultimately, Boston scored a staggering 52 points in the paint, a weapon the Nets just couldn’t access on Saturday.
“We wanted them to take it as many jump shots as possible to give us a chance to rebound the basketball,” said Vaughn. “It worked for us some of the night, and they took advantage of it when we didn’t.”
His starting wing agreed, as Mikal Bridges said of the Celtics: “Yeah, I mean, they’re 5-0 for a reason. They got talent, really well-coached and Porzingis got size. So, obviously he’s taller than our whole starting lineup and everybody off the bench. So, he got some easy ones, it was tough, but we just learn from it. And if we’re small again, we just gotta adjust.”
Down the stretch, the visitors got easy ones and relied on their bona-fide star, Jayson Tatum, to make the tough ones. The Nets, meanwhile, missed a whole lot of tough ones. Still, as Tatum said, post-game, “This was a good test for us. We had a couple of blowouts the past couple of games, but this was really a test for us.”
If Brooklyn’s cold shooting was attributable to fatigue, their effort and attention to detail certainly wasn’t. They did not get man-handled by a much bigger Celtics team on the glass, starting both Porzingis and Horford — each squad grabbed ten offensive rebounds. They did not turn the ball over either, coughing it up just five times to Boston’s 11.
If there are no moral victories in sports, I don’t know Brooklyn’s performance on Saturday night was, and neither does Vaughn:
“The message from our guys at the end of the game, I told ‘em, ‘I’m excited to play again.’ We have tomorrow off, I’m excited to play who we play next, just because this space that we have right now: We’re growing as a team,” said the head coach. “And for us to really step up to a challenge...the people who played showed up and gave what they had, and we gave ourselves a chance to win tonight, and you can see us growing as a team.”
The Nets’ effort was nothing less than admirable. At the end of the day, though, Jacque Vaughn’s final words rang oh so true:
“That ball just didn’t go in the hole a few times for us.”
Day’Ron Sharpe Delivers
The brightest spot of the night for the Nets may well have been the play of Day’Ron Sharpe, who was Brooklyn’s most consistent paint presence, outside of Lonnie Walker’s first-quarter explosion. Sharpe finished with 11 points and seven boards in just 17 minutes, which the Nets won by six points. They also included this ferocious dunk over Porzingis:
Day'Ron Sharpe rolls and dunks all over Porzingis with the left hand: pic.twitter.com/w42oXF0Edl— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 5, 2023
I asked Sharpe’s assist-man on that dunk, Spencer Dinwiddie, about what he's seen from the young big that’s allowed him to play strong games against Chicago and Boston in back-to-back appearances off the bench:
“I think he came in really focused and locked in at training camp. I heard that he had a phenomenal summer, stayed in Brooklyn for most of it. I think you just see it in the body of work. We’d play certain, like, offensive rebounding games in camp where he was effectively LeBron when those rule-sets are in place. He’s a lot stronger than you even think, and he already looks like a big strong kid,” said Dinwiddie.
“Yeah, I mean he’s got a pretty varied skill set. He can even shoot a bit and hopefully he’s able to show that as we go into this year and just playing a bigger role, a little bit more traditional big, obviously something that is familiar in my career, and he’s really receptive as a young guy. Like I said, he can do a little bit of everything. He really could pop and shoot threes, if he played enough, but finishing above the rim, and he’s not scared of anything. He takes the challenge every day. You know, he’s got all the talent.”
With Brooklyn having picked up the fourth-year option on Sharpe’s contract, he’ll be a Net through the end of next season, barring a trade. It’s certainly encouraging to hear this sort of praise, matched with his recent production.
Playing Without Ben
For the first time this season, Brooklyn played without Ben Simmons who missed the season’s first back-to-back in order to protect his. Despite the cross-city back-to-back, Simmons’ absence surely had something to do with the Nets’ season-low seven fast break points, which put an end to their five-game streak of 20-plus.
Jacque Vaughn spoke at length about what Brooklyn misses when Simmons sits, and what he saw on Saturday night from a slower team missing who Dinwiddie called “arguably our best player:”
“I think it’s a combination, I don’t think it’s just one thing. Ben is extremely important - I’ll say that first - into how we want to play, the pace that he plays with, makes or misses. You play a high-level team like tonight who makes shots, then you’re not gonna be able to push at the pace that you want to,” added Dinwiddie.
“So the combination of playing against Boston, Ben being out, then also the ability - which was interesting - for us to still shoot 50 threes without Ben was interesting. So if we can combine that when Ben is in to shoot 50 and have pace and have fastbreak points, that’s the Holy Grail for us, obviously. But yes, definitely miss Ben and his ability to push the basketball. It is elite and makes us a different team.”
Nic Claxton Update
Prior to tip-off, Nic Claxton spoke with YES Network’s Meghan Triplett about his now-five-game absence recovering from an injury. You can find the full discussion here...
Ahead of tonight's game, Nic Claxton speaks with @Meghan_Triplett and the rest of the media discussing his injury, when he will be back on the court, and more. #NETSonYES x #NetsWorld pic.twitter.com/ZdrpZWQE3X— YES Network (@YESNetwork) November 4, 2023
...but the highlights include Claxton confirming that is injury is indeed a “high ankle sprain,” but that he's out of the walking boot, putting in more work on the court to try and test out that thorny joint.
“I don’t know if anybody, if any of y’all, have ever dealt with a high ankle sprain. It’s my first time. It’s not fun,” Claxton told reporters. “It’s pain-tolerance. It’s [about] being good, just mentally. You don’t want to go out there and put yourself in a bad position, especially so early in the season, so I’m just taking it day by day.”
Not much going on tonight. As noted, Day’Ron Sharpe had some very good moments and the Nets had this to note about Dorian Finney-Smith’s scoring...
- All 11 of Sharpe’s points came in the first half, which marked the highest-scoring first half of his career, and the second-highest scoring half overall (14 points in the second half of a 1/12/22 game at Chicago.)
- Six straight games in double-figures marks the third-longest stretch of Finney-Smith’s career, as he had separate streaks of 13 games and eight games as a Dallas Maverick.
- Mikal Bridges recorded his 500th career steal in his 398th NBA game. And on Wednesday vs. the Clippers, he will play in his 400th consecutive game, barring injury of course.
- Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum reached a Celtic milestone of no mean note. Midway through the second quarter, an and-1 by Tatum got him to 10,000 career points. Tatum is the youngest Celtic ever to reach 10,000 points.
Thankfully, Brooklyn will have a day of rest, and gets to stay at home, but the games don’t get a whole lot easier. The Milwaukee Bucks are coming to town, and despite a 3-2 start to the season that hasn’t been as dominant as Damian Lillard’s new squad may become, they are no cupcake.
Tip-off from the Barclays Center is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET, Monday night.
For another perspective on tonight’s game, head on over to the Celtics Blog.
- Box Score: Boston Celtics 124, Brooklyn Nets 114 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Boston Celtics 124, Brooklyn Nets 114 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Jayson Tatum 32 PTS, 11 REBS (Video) - NBA
- Jacque Vaughn on importance of Ben Simmons after loss to Boston (Video) - Meghan Triplett - YES Network
- Bridges talks about lineup (Video) - YES Network
- Spencer Dinwiddie on Nets’ loss to Celtics (Video) - YES Network
- Nic Claxton gives injury update and possible return (Video) - YES Network
- Celtics outlast Nets 124-114 behind Tatum and Holiday’s double-doubles - Denis P. Gorman - AP
- Tatum sets franchise mark as Celtics bury Nets, 124-114 - Reuters
- Nets can’t keep up with late Celtics run in loss while down three starters - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nic Claxton’s ankle injury gives encore to breakthrough season a ‘frustrating’ start - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- How Dorian Finney-Smith moonlighting at center is saving the Nets - Brian Lewis - New York Post Sports+
- Undermanned Nets hang tough but fall to Jayson Tatum, undefeated Celtics - Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Nets Notebook: Ben Simmons sits vs. Celtics for maintenance day; Nic Claxton dealing with ‘high ankle sprain’ - Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Nets’ depth helping keep team afloat amid early-season injuries: ‘We’re at least 10 deep’ Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Jayson Tatum, Celtics halt Nets’ three-game win streak - Evan Barnes - Newsday