After all the drama, injuries, trials, and tribulations, the reunion finally happened last night: the Brooklyn Nets and Yuta Watanabe got back together. Future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant also got an invite to the party.
But all jokes aside, Wednesday evening included homecomings for multiple prodigal “Suns” linking back up with old friends beside the Slim Reaper. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson returned to the arena where they started their careers. Durant and Watanabe dapped up their former Nets teammates as well.
Oh, and a game took place. The Nets held on to defeat to the Suns by a 116-112 final score. The contest featured a bounce back effort from Cam Thomas, more Spencer Dinwiddie grenades, and last but certainly not least, a corner three from Nic Claxton. Under all the hype, here’s what we learned about the team ahead a quick turnaround vs the reigning champs.
Closing Games Remains...Interesting
Spencer Dinwiddie and Mikal Bridges make it impossible to say the Nets do not have a closer. Dinwiddie scored Brooklyn’s final five points before Cam Thomas iced it from the line last night. Bridges, who trails only Damian Lillard in clutch points per game this year, scored 10 in the fourth including the game winner just last week vs the Atlanta Hawks.
The Nets know their go to guys down the stretch and know they can deliver. But alas, they still never make it easy in getting to the finish. Inbounds plays, navigating traps, and avoiding bad fouls are still mainstays during closing time for the Nets even with their ability to pull out victories in the end.
Make no mistake about it. The Nets are clutch...but also somehow sloppy. It’s like they’re solving a math problem, getting the right answer, but when they show their work it’s clear they’re not doing it way their teacher showed them. You’ll take the result, but the process is head scratching.
Tonight, the Nets nearly thew the game away in doing that, both literally and figuratively. On the inbound, Cameron Johnson did not establish enough space to seal of Jordan Goodwin, who reached over the swung the ball into no-man’s land. I’ll let you all decide whether that’s on Dinwiddie for throwing that pass to early or just lacking awareness from Johnson.
the Nets will never make it easy, oh my GOODNESS pic.twitter.com/FIZwJsazlo— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
Dinwiddie bolted back in bounds to secure the ball and eventually the win. A swing out to Cam Thomas and a successful trip to the line buried Phoenix. The inbound “worked,” but did not go as planned.
As I mentioned before, the Nets are no stranger to these “gasp, then sigh of relief” plays in this young season. In their first contest vs the Chicago Bulls the Nets should have coasted to an easy win on the road. Instead, they stumbled over the finish line, as a miss placed a tip-back rebound almost led to a four point possession for the Bulls and Zach LaVine game-winner.
Oh my goodness, Ben Simmons gives every Nets fan a heart attack by punching the ball to Zach LaVine, who misses a game-tying jumper at the buzzer. Nets win: pic.twitter.com/muOCF5Y9P2— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 4, 2023
Poor inbound decisions nearly cost them a few days before that as well. If you recall Brooklyn’s first win this year vs the Miami Heat, the Nets nearly allowed Josh Richardson to steal the rock and a chance for his team to tie the game, eerily similar to what happened last night in Phoenix.
However, the ball skirted out to Mikal Bridges who walked a tightrope and corralled it before drawing a foul. Again, free throws followed which allowed him to ice the game, but the road there was way too rocky.
I don’t mean to make mincemeat out of finishing off teams. Goodwin and Richardson deserve credit for putting pressure on the Nets in both scenarios. But with so many instances of this sort already this year, and when you consider the close game’s Brooklyn has lost down the stretch due to similar blunders, a call for greater focus down the stretch feels warranted.
Boxing out, blitzes on ball-handlers, and inbound plays all resemble easy things to simulate in practice. With the team clearly still needing to iron a few things out, it’s a no brainer to spend time on once completing this back-to-back.
Claxton vs Heavy Bigs still a Work in Progress
The only point last night where Phoenix looked like they might run away with it came when Jusuf Nurkic started to have his way with Nic Claxton down low. With Phoenix being armed with Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and Durant tonight, that’s a matchup Brooklyn needed to win, but left up in the air.
It’s no secret that Claxton’s skinnier frame represents something of a double-edged sword. In today’s league where versatility and amidst different pick-and-roll defensive sets is a must, Claxton excels.
His speed and athleticism allow him to play one through five and pressure all kinds of players at all areas of the court. That frame also allows him to threaten against slower, bigger, more traditional centers at the other end, especially in transition when he already has a head of steam going.
His lone caveat comes in the half court though, where Clax falls at a disadvantage against players with a strong, back down the basket game who can out muscle him for buckets. Last night, it was Jusuf Nurkic embodying that Kryptonite.
The Bosnian Beast scored nine points from the 6:33 to two minute mark in the third, inflating Phoenix’s lead to six points, just one digit off from their largest lead of the night. That slow, punishing, physical play which makes life tough on Claxton got him there and fed the Suns significant momentum. Nurkic finished the game with 15 points on 7-15 field goals.
Nurkic’s size also gave Claxton a lot to deal with on the glass. His frame made it difficult for Claxton to get proper positioning under the basket. For the second straight game the Nets found themselves in the history books for the wrong reason, as Nurk snatched a career-high 22 rebounds over Claxton and company.
One night like this does not warrant any major changes to Brooklyn’s usage of Claxton. He remains an elite defensive player. He also came through in the fourth with some tough buckets and defensive possessions to help secure the win.
Nic Claxton has had an up-and-down night, but it is trending way up right now: pic.twitter.com/a3l5wPLSgR— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
Brooklyn will live and die with Claxton at the five, but against teams with bigs like Nurkic, the team might need to prepare extra help on the block and simply go big more with Finney-Smith at the four more often than they typically prefer.
Day’Ron Shapre only played eight minutes tonight, but Jacque Vaughn has not hesitated to sub him in if the matchup is right. His development as a third year player paired with this “weakness” for Claxton represents something to keep a close eye on as the Nets field different opponents with different bigs down the line.
Locked and loaded with the best center in the game, the Denver Nuggets also represent an intriguing challenge up next. They carry a guy with in Nikola Jokic with Nurkic’s skillset down low but even more polished, with elite court vision, and a shot to threaten from anywhere.
A Tip of the Hat Defensively for Jacque Vaughn
Brooklyn’s choice to move from a drop to a switch defense at different points tonight proved pivotal in their winning effort.
With Nurkic on a the floor, Brooklyn more often than not rolled with the former. Nurk’s one dimensional game demanded a greater emphasis on defending the paint. It opened the door for some Phoenix offensive rebounds, but in the long run, kept the Suns from smoking Brooklyn in the paint.
The switch arrived when Phoenix went with smaller “bigs” like Chimezie Metu, Watanabe, or Keita Bates-Diop. It also made a comeback on various possessions to close fourth, throwing occasional curveballs at Booker, Beal, and Durant while they navigated around screens.
Now that is a Nic Claxton defensive possession: pic.twitter.com/gOfk4oSs8y— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
Two sequences which stood came at different points in the final frame, but each contributed to Brooklyn establishing its lead. Around the nine and a half mark of the period, the Nets switched Claxton onto Booker with Nurk on the bench. Likely having seen the scouting report on Clax, Book didn’t even attempt to attack him and kicked to Goodwin for a contested triple which clanked off the rim. Dorian Finney-Smith hit a three on the next play, culminating in a big swing for Brooklyn to inflate their lead.
A few sequences later, the Nets hit KD with the switch, this time as a surprise with Nurk on the floor. He found some space off the exchange, and we’ve seen him hit this shot hundreds of times in Brooklyn threads, but Claxton got in his grill just enough to force a miss. Spencer Dinwiddie nailed a triple on the next possession. That’s another game-altering swing play starting on defense.
Some questionable doubles with Phoenix’s big three on the floor hurt the team on a few isolated possessions last night, but when you consider the task at hand of trying to blanket this big three while Nurkic roams about down low, Brooklyn handled it exceptionally well.
Jacque Vaughn deserves a pat on the back for pulling the right strings at the right times to unleash these different looks at Phoenix. The players do too with their execution of said defensive sets, especially Claxton. Although we know he works off the switch better than maybe anyone in the NBA, he showed fortitude tonight, sticking with it and still trusting his defensive guns after those rough sequences in the third.