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Brooklyn Nets play ultimate spoiler, defeat Phoenix Suns 116-112

No matter how the Nets defeated the Suns, it would’ve been the win of the year. But especially that way.

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Brooklyn Nets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The NBA regular season is very, very imperfect. Combining condensed schedules with the spaced-out, faced-paced product on the floor, where players cover more ground than they ever have, leads to injuries. It leads to silly circumstances, like the Brooklyn Nets playing in Denver on the second night of a cross-city back-to-back. Thus, it leads to rest, and of course, incessant debate about that rest.

But man does the NBA regular season have its moments. Sometimes, they’re surprises, like the last West Coast game of the night going to double OT, or a rookie’s signature moment.

Wednesday night’s contest between the Nets and the Phoenix Suns was not that. You know all the familiar faces and storylines, of course: Kevin Durant playing his first game against his old team, the favorite sons Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges making their returns to Phoenix. Yuta Watanabe. Just a big, happy family reunion.

Oh, and the long-awaited debut of the Suns’ Big Three, a real big three. The kind the Nets—never mind. Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and Durant would be sharing the court for the first time, facing, of all teams, these Brooklyn Nets. Could the stars — in the sky and on the court — have aligned more perfectly?

No. All five Brooklyn starters scored in double figures, and a highlight-filled game went down to the wire. It ended with the Nets securing their best win of the season, perhaps providing even more closure on a bygone era while fully bursting open the doors to a new one.

Final Score: Brooklyn Nets 116, Phoenix Suns 112.

With just under three minutes left in the first quarter, the Nets trailed 22-18. Other than a tribute video for Bridges and Johnson pregame, with greetings for Durant and Watanabe, the night’s start was just like the start of Brooklyn’s loss to the Sacramento Kings on Monday.

The Nets were not just solid, but fun on defense, doubling Phoenix’s stars and flying around the perimeter. They even forced four turnovers in the quarter, but, like Monday, couldn’t capitalize on the other end, as their transition attack stalled out and open looks became bricks in the half-court.

If not for Durant missing a pair of free-throws and wide-open threes, Brooklyn may have been facing an early double-digit deficit. Was that a sign of things to come?

Not quite; Brooklyn announced they were ready to spoil Phoenix’s special night by going on a masterful 19-0 run that extended well into the second quarter; they ended up grabbing a 64-56 halftime lead.

And who better to lead the Nets than Cam Johnson? He filled up the stat-sheet with 15/5/4/2/1 in the first half, making all five of his shot attempts including three triples in a building he still feels comfortable in:

Each team was missing two key back-court players: Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV for the Nets, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon for the Suns. It turned out to be a more-than-even tradeoff for Brooklyn in the first half.

They exposed the Suns missing their two best (non-star) shooters, shading off the likes of Nassir Little, Jordan Goodwin, and yes, Yuta the Shoota, who combined to shoot 0-of-6 from three off the bench, unable to punish Brooklyn’s D:

Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s own bench delivered. Trendon Watford played 13 minutes in the first half, simply too effective to take off the court. He dropped seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, not to mention his feisty-as-usual attitude:

Elsewhere, the forward duo of Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale balled out yet again, combining for a modest nine points but cleaning up the defense, making the extra pass, and winning their minutes handily.

Yet, the Suns fixed many of their problems in the third quarter. Namely, keeping Devin Booker and Jusuf Nurkic on the floor. On a night of throwbacks, Nets fans got a bitter one: watching their team getting dominated by a big, burly center. Neither Day’Ron Sharpe, who didn’t play in the second half, nor Nic Claxton could slow Nurkic, who finished with a monster 15 and twenty-two boards, even taking matters into his own hands at times:

As for Booker, he led the Suns’ offense all night. Durant finished with 27 points and Beal with 14; the two co-stars even shot efficiently (18-27). But on Wednesday night, they were just that: co-stars.

Booker, like Nurkic, dominated his minutes, finishing with a plus-minus of +16, but the 34 points and dozen dimes were even sweeter. He got his in single coverage, particularly attacking Claxton in the pick-and-roll, but created tons of opportunities for his teammates when the Nets threw multiple bodies at him.

It all added up to a seven-point lead for Phoenix as the third quarter wound down, and they seemed poised to avoid the fate of Kevin Durant’s previous two superteams: losing in their debut.

But the contributions started to pour in for Brooklyn. Carried by their bench in the first half, the starters showed up — with Nurkic on the bench, Claxton turned from bullied to bully, finishing with 14 points and flying around on defense:

Then, it was Cam Thomas’ turn: He scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the fourth quarter to quell any notions that Phoenix may run away and hide. Six-of-seventeen shooting may not be the sexiest line around, but he led the Nets with 24 points, and his run to start the fourth did more than just level the playing field:

“It was cool,” said Thomas of facing off against his friend in Durant. “I mean obviously, coming into the league, you want to play against the guys like that...I can’t wait to do it again.”

He would cool off, but not before welcoming Mikal Bridges to the party. Bridges didn’t have the immediate homecoming of his Twin, starting the game 3-14 from the floor. Yet, he made his next four shots, trading buckets with ex-teammate and current friend Booker. And they were tough.

This drive into a fadeaway — over the biggest player on the court — gave Brooklyn a five-point lead with under four minutes left, and the away crowd that had cheered his first couple makes was doing no such thing toward the end of Wednesday’s action.

And finally, Spencer Dinwiddie, ever the forgotten man. He doesn’t have the shine of the Twins, who arrived in Brooklyn to wipe away the stain that only a failed superteam could leave. He's not Dorian Finney-Smith, the type of role player who endears himself to fans with his attitude both on and off the court. Dinwiddie isn’t Cam Thomas either, the bright, shiny object that can put up 40 in a flash.

But who would you rather have the rock down the stretch than the longest-tenured*** Net? Brooklyn’s starting point guard finished with 16/8/7, with two steals and one singular turnover.

Half of his points came in the fourth quarter, including two deep step-back threes and a driving layup that Ian Eagle had to invent a new call for:

Said Vaughn of Dinwiddie: “His timing has become instrumental for us in seeing how the flow of the game is going, seeing what coverages are being forced on Cam and Mikal, and then being able to capitalize on’s just his intellect of knowing when and where that timing is needed.”

Of course, Dinwiddie and his teammates almost had to ruin it, because otherwise, it wouldn’t have been the quintessential Nets win it deserved to be. Inbounding the ball up two with seven seconds left (after Durant made a strange decision to foul with just three on the shot clock), Dinwiddie nearly committed his second turnover of the ballgame:

Nearly. Thomas scooped up the loose ball and sealed the win with free-throws, capping off undoubtedly the best night of Brooklyn’s young season, moving them to 13-10.

“Oh man, they’re free throws. I always make those...I mean free-throws? I was gonna make those. That’s nothing,” said Thomas semi-jokingly.

Now, was that all worth it? I mean all of it, from June 2019 to Wednesday, December 13, 2023?

All the circumstances that led to emotional revenge-games for Bridges and Johnson, now donning black-and-white, that led to Nets fans looking at one of the 15 greatest players of all time as little more than a bittersweet ex, the wounds from an era of frustration and heartbreak still fresh...does one little win tie a happy bow on all of that?

Yeah, pretty much.

Said Cam Johnson: “I was trying to tell the fans, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay guys.’ They act like I got sent away, you know, sent away to juvie or something. Yeah, tell them we’re doing all right.”

Milestone Watch

We have some interesting milestones, befitting such a unique victory.

  • First one isn’t so much of a milestone as it is merely a statistical ‘hmm’: The Nets and Suns each had 13 fast break points, and 50 paint points.
  • Cam Johnson’s first half was one for the books: His 15 points on 5-5 shooting was most points he’s scored in any half without missing a shot from the field, in his career. The same goes for any Net, this season.
  • And of course, we have the granddaddy of them all: Nic Claxton not only took his first 3-pointer of the season, but he made it, his first triple since March 2021. It wasn’t a heave, it wasn’t at the end of the shot clock, it looked as normal as can be:

Please, please enjoy the players’ reactions, which mostly consist of brief pauses and dumbfounded stares directed at Claxton.

Familiar Faces

Wednesday night was chock-full of cheerful reunions. On the (current) Suns’ side of things, Durant and Watanabe were delighted to see their old friends still on the East Coast. Pictured below are the two saying hello to Nic Claxton and Royce O’Neale, respectively, but click on the thread for a whole bunch of pictures, including Durant chopping it up with Ian Eagle and Sarah Kustok of the YES Network crew:

Elsewhere, the relationship between Cam Thomas and Durant was well-covered in Brooklyn. The latter, ever the type to respect a pure bucket-getter, mentored the former. YES Network ran a brief video package covering their friendship, which Thomas says still exists to this day:

Said Thomas of Wednesday festivities: “When I was warming up — the pregame warmup — when I seen [KD] warming up on that end, you know, we looked at each other,” mimicking an eyebrows-raised expression and laughing.

Now, the two Nets with lifelong ties to Phoenix are Bridges and Johnson, who were not just drafted by the organization in back-to-back years, but played a major role in turning the franchise from bottom-feeder to NBA Finals participants in 2021. As a result, beloved doesn’t begin to describe Phoenix’s attitude toward the Twins, evident even after the hometown fans experienced a tough loss:

Of course, the Suns played a nice, joint tribute video for their two former wings, which resulted in a standing ovation:

Said Jacque Vaughn: “When you’re talking about re-establishing your identity and culture and really moving forward as an organization and taking the next step, that ovation should be like our anthem, you know? I couldn’t believe, listening to it, the amount of people who were cheering for them.”

Next Up

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

As mentioned in the introduction, the Nets will play the second leg of their ridiculous back-to-back on Thursday nights as the fly from the desert to the mountain to face the world champion Denver Nuggets. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:00 p.m. ET.