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Despite Cam Thomas’ 45, Brooklyn Nets suffer another heart-breaker, 129-125, to Milwaukee Bucks

Cam Thomas went off, the Nets played well, but they lost in agonizing fashion. This script is starting to get old.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

There are many great players in the NBA, but man, it feels like the Brooklyn Nets are playing them all at once.

After returning from a fruitful four-game road trip only to immediately face the invincible Boston Celtics, where they put up a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful fight, the Nets got a full day off. It was the team’s first off day spent at home, with no travel, of the season.

They better have enjoyed it, because Monday night brought the Milwaukee Bucks to the Barclays Center, led by none other than Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have not started the season like the Celtics, stumbling rather than sprinting to an early 3-2 record with the 8th-worst net rating in the league.

Still, Lillard and Antetokounmpo are enough to cause sweaty palms for any opponent. On top of that, Brooklyn would be without Nic Claxton for the sixth straight game, continuing to play a small lineup against the massive front-court of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.

As it turns out, the two squads seem to be almost identically matched. The Bucks and Nets played a stunningly even game on Monday night — Brooklyn shot to 49/36/85 splits, Milwaukee shot 48/33/88. Milwaukee edged out Brooklyn in both total rebounds and points in the paint, 48-46. The Nets turned the ball over two fewer times.

Of course, this game came right down to the wire, as six of Brooklyn’s seven games now have. This one ended in heartbreak, thanks to a couple soul-crushing plays mixed with an opposing star taking over. Sound familiar?

Final score: Milwaukee 129, Brooklyn 125.

Much has been made of Milwaukee’s slow start to the season, whether it be an apparent lack of identity, Khris Middleton’s sluggish play after off-season knee surgery, or the resignation of assistant coach Terry Stotts, Lillard’s former head coach, just before Opening Night.

Despite a similar record as Milwaukee, the Nets have had quite a different start to the season, vibes-wise. Even with injury woes, Jacque Vaughn’s plan to play fast, shoot threes, and crash the glass has come to fruition, and Brooklyn’s style of play has been identifiable no matter who’s been in the lineup.

That trend continued early on against Milwaukee, as Ben Simmons returned after a one-game absence to grab rebounds, push the pace, and create open 3-pointers for others. Mikal Bridges and Cam Thomas feasted against the Bucks’ signature drop coverage, with a bit of a role reversal. Bridges, whose shot profile has skewed more toward the 3-point arc this season, hit five mid-range jumpers in the first half for 13 early points:

Meanwhile, Cam Thomas, noted mid-range assassin, started pulling from deep at every opportunity, and for good reason: He was open! He was red hot!

When asked at shoot-around if Lillard was the best off-the-dribble 3-point shooter in the NBA, Thomas replied, “I think I am,” with a sly chuckle. It seems he wasn’t joking.

Thomas scored 20 points in the first half, launching ten triples and making half of them against a Bucks team whose drop coverage certainly made his eyes bulge.

Said Thomas: “I knew coming out I’d have to start shooting them at the beginning...I gotta shoot it. It’s the best shot I’m gonna get, a wide-open three.”

Brooklyn’s other double-digit scorer in the first half was none other than Lonnie Walker IV, who has been the prototypical, microwave bench scorer every fan clamors for early in the season. His 14 points resulted from his now-usual blend of running in transition, long-range marksmanship, and athletic finishes around the paint:

Defensively, it first appeared that Brooklyn would have an easier time than expected containing the newly-anointed Freak Time. All season long, Nets have crowded the gaps on opponents’ drives, but they took it to another level early on Monday night. With an emphasis on help defense, even just one pass away, they forced the Bucks into taking plenty 3-pointers — the strategy worked, as Milwaukee opened the game just 3-of-14 from deep, as their offense stagnated.

Antetokounmpo, though, kept his team in it by force of will, as he often does. Only two of his 17 first-half points came outside the paint or free-throw line, but it was more than enough to keep the Bucks in it while his teammates warmed up. Or more accurately, subbed out.

Milwaukee’s starters shot 1-of-16 from three in the first half, but their bench came in and went 8-of-11! Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne, and company brought the visitors not just back in the second quarter, but ahead, at one point taking an eight-point lead.

“There were some individuals on that second unit that, we were okay [with] taking shots,” said Vaughn. “They made some of those tonight. That’s just part of the gameplan. They staggered Giannis a little bit, they staggered Dame, so we tried to give them attention when they did that, so those periphery guys are gonna get shots. That’s what we’re gonna give up some nights.”

Curiously, Milwaukee’s starters continued to struggle at the end of the period, and Brooklyn capitalized, taking a 67-63 advantage into the locker room, in part thanks to this electrifying sequence:

The third quarter featured both squads clicking on all cylinders. The turnover count on each side remained low, and while Lillard’s quiet night continued, the rest of the night’s major players just kept on scoring.

Bridges and Thomas each scored another ten points in the period, including this ridiculous triple from Thomas, right over Lillard and complete with a stoic stare-down of the future Hall-of-Famer:

Milwaukee’s bench continued to splash 3-pointers, with contributions from Middleton and Malik Beasley among the starters. After the team’s 3-of-14 start to the night, they shot 12-of-24 from deep in quarters two and three. Brooklyn’s pack-line defense started to bend, then it broke.

Bridges illustrated the conundrum Milwaukee presents postgame: “When you got a guy like Giannis, you got to — you can’t leave him one-on-one, you know. So you just gotta help. I mean, that’s why they won a championship years ago and are contenders every year. They just, they got talent all across, you know, guys that can shoot, put it on the floor, so it makes it difficult.”

Yet, the Nets’ offense did more than just keep up. Dorian Finney-Smith finally cooled off, shooting just 3-of-12 overall, but Royce O’Neale stepped up to score 12 points on 4-of-7 from downtown. Brooklyn took an 89-79 lead, their largest of the game, near the end of the third quarter.

“I thought we had multiple efforts on the offensive end of the floor,” said Vaughn. “People talk about that defensively, but we were able to get the switches we want. We created different opportunities tonight, whether it was putting Brook in pick-and-roll, whether it was pulling him out from the basket, whether it was having a secondary action starting the ball on one side of the floor, swinging it, and then getting them into the pick-and-roll.”

Brooklyn’s head coach went with a familiar lineup to close the third: an O’Neale-Sharpe front-court, supplemented by three guards. The normally reliable group lost their minutes, though. Walker couldn't replicate his first-half success, and Dennis Smith Jr. scored just two points. Dinwiddie sat as Thomas took his place, and watched as the offense slowed to a halt. Thomas couldn’t save stagnant possessions with his tough shot-making, and the Bucks jumped out to a 96-94 lead by the end of the period.

Despite lineup changes, Brooklyn’s still couldn’t get it going from the floor; Nets fans watched helplessly as Milwaukee took a 108-99 lead early in the fourth that felt dangerously final.

But these Nets, once again, didn’t lay down. Simmons shot just 1-of-3 on the night, scoring two points, and somehow looking even more tentative than those numbers would indicate. Yet he grabbed 15 rebounds, the biggest reason Brooklyn was able to hang with Milwaukee on the glass, and guarded Antetokounmpo admirably.

Simmons, as he’s done all season, boarded and pushed the pace; Thomas and Bridges followed his lead with buckets. Walker chipped in five fourth-quarter points to finish with 19 total, and Finney-Smith kept fighting as the small-ball center. Together, those five led an inspiring comeback, and treated fans to yet another heart-pounding finish.

Down the stretch, the Nets and Bucks traded buckets, all within a one-possession game. Milwaukee replaced Lopez with Bobby Portis, and began switching pick-and-roll actions. That left Thomas and Bridges free to attack the defenders they wanted, and the duo obliged. Despite increasing levels of help defense, Brooklyn’s two leading scorers powered through to the paint, finishing with layups or fallaway jumpers:

Yet, it wasn’t enough to overtake the Bucks, led by Antetokounmpo’s 36 points. Lillard and Middleton, despite shaky games, chipped in buckets where they could, and combined for 36 themselves. It was enough to grant the guests a 125-123 lead with just thirty seconds remaining.

Then, Brooklyn got a crucial stop and the ball found Simmons, who threw a dot up the floor in transition. He just found the wrong guy. Dorian Finney-Smith, whose play-finishing has been so strong this season, was put to the test. With Antetokounmpo lurking behind, Finney-Smith felt footsteps in his head. Catching the ball under the basket, he pump-faked, then pump-faked some more, and sweated his way into a contested lefty lay-up that fell short. Milwaukee ball:

From there, the Nets and Bucks played the foul game, and despite the Bucks missing a couple of free-throws, they didn’t do enough to hand the Nets a real chance, and ultimately sealed the four-point victory.

Thomas poured in 45 points on 17-33 shooting; it was a scoring masterclass. The third-year guard roasted drop coverage with pull-up threes, then torched switches by getting to the cup. Bridges was just barely a step behind; not only did he play admirable defense on Lillard, tasked with fighting through screens against the NBA’s second-scariest shooter, he shot 12-of-21 to put up a 31/5/4 stat-line, turning it over just once in his 399th straight game.

For the first time all season, Brooklyn’s reserves lost their minutes, and handily at that. Antetokounmpo fiercely protecting the rim made the difference in the final seconds, but Milwaukee’s bench play was the difference in the 47 minutes prior.

Vaughn was quick to divert blame from his bench mob, postgame: “I probably rode our starters a little longer tonight. The high level of playing against Milwaukee, I tried to take advantage of our starters vs. their second group. Give them a lot of credit, their second group did make shots”

The Nets know they're going to be in close games all season long; they’ve spoken about it after every game, win or loss. Just seven games in, Nets fans know it too: This franchise is built to hand out heart problems, and this season appears to be no different. But knowing it is far, far different than experiencing it.

Man, these losses still sting.

Milestone Watch

Despite the loss, you can bet there are milestones. And I’m sure you can guess why:

  • Cam Thomas tied Bernard King for the most 40-burgers at age 22 or younger in Nets franchise history, with his fifth such performance. Of the five, the Nets have lost four.
  • Thomas is now the fourth Nets player to score 40+ points five times in the last four decades, joining Vince Carter, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
  • Thomas, whose 45 points marked a season-high, is locked in a tight race with Anthony Edwards for the NBA’s leading scorer, 22-and-under division. Thomas is now averaging 28.7 a game, while Ant-Man is at 26.2.
  • Thomas is now tied with Nikola Jokic for the ninth highest scoring average in the NBA.
  • Monday was Thomas’ fourth 30-point+ game of the season. No player in the NBA has more.
  • Cam Thomas went 6-16 from deep — “I wanted to make about three more of those” — the third time he’s made six triples in a game. He’s scored at least 40 in all of them.
  • The Nets have reached 20 fastbreak points for the sixth time in seven games, and in every game Ben Simmons has appeared in.
  • When Mikal Bridges suits up on Wednesday vs. the Clippers, it will be his 400th consecutive game, nowhere near the record, but currently the best number in the NBA.

Birthday Celebrations

Less than a month removed from Thomas’s 22nd, and just two days past rookie Jalen Wilson’s 23, the Nets celebrated Day’Ron Sharpe’s birthday today. The former Tar Heel also turned 23:

Vaughn joked with Meghan Triplett before the game about the team’s splurge of birthdays: “I can’t keep eating that much cake. Jalen had cake and then Day-Day had cake today. I can’t be having that much cake. Day’Ron today, he was pretending like he was older. I said, ‘Man, stay young. Stay young.’ So it’s cool to celebrate. It’s an avenue of gratitude for us, and for us to do it together as a team, to wish them happy birthday, pretty cool.”

But don’t throw out those nice plastic forks Joe Tsai has provided. They’ll come in handy on Thursday when Trendon Watford turns 23 and on November 25, when Dennis Smith Jr. turns 26,

Up Next

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The schedule doesn’t get any easier, with another contender hoping to establish their identity visiting the Barclays Center on Wednesday. And they’ll be bringing a familiar beard — I mean face — with them. The Brooklyn Nets’ next opponent is indeed James Harden and the Los Angles Clippers.

Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday evening.

For a different perspective of the night, go to Brew Hoop, our Bucks sister site on SB Nation.