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:
Cam Johnson hits his second consecutive three, and the Nets are on a 19-0 run. "CAM CAM": pic.twitter.com/a8UYPxHV0Q— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Nets bring two to the ball on a KD pick-and-roll -- now watch the Twins fly around on the weak-side: pic.twitter.com/q5uAPSWlPj— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Trendon Watford goes right at Chimezie Metu and hits a floater. Turns to the Suns bench, says "too easy" and laughs: pic.twitter.com/FjVgBTv7g6— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Not a good sign for Brooklyn if Nurkic is doing this to Clax: pic.twitter.com/MofmvXxBG5— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Now that is a Nic Claxton defensive possession: pic.twitter.com/gOfk4oSs8y— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Cam Thomas has Brooklyn's first eight points to start the fourth quarter -- he may be on one: pic.twitter.com/D59L6VbxbZ— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
“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.
Mikal Bridges started tonight 3-14, but that's far in the past now; he's made his last four shots: pic.twitter.com/kyzGgP3IfV— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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 that...it’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:
the Nets will never make it easy, oh my GOODNESS pic.twitter.com/FIZwJsazlo— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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.”
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.
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:
YES Network aired this brief package on the relationship between Cam Thomas and Kevin Durant while KD was in BK: pic.twitter.com/Vl44ff5yNE— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 14, 2023
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:
Mikal Bridges took a victory lap around Footprint Center to a loud ovation from the remaining Suns fans. pic.twitter.com/APqqXwW4Ti— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) December 14, 2023
Of course, the Suns played a nice, joint tribute video for their two former wings, which resulted in a standing ovation:
Suns play their tribute video for an emotional Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges pic.twitter.com/KZ9PyvFPSZ— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) December 14, 2023
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.”
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.
- Box Score: Brooklyn Nets 116, Phoenix Suns 112 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Brooklyn Nets 116, Phoenix Suns 112 (Video) - NBA
- First look at Suns Big 3 In regular season! (Video) - NBA
- Mikal Bridges speaks after win in return to Phoenix (Video) - Meghan Triplett - YES Network
- Frank Isola on Nets’ road win over the Suns (Video) - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn: Postgame vs. Suns (Video) - YES Network
- Mikal Bridges: Postgame vs. Suns (Video) - YES Network
- Cam Johnson: Postgame vs. Suns (Video) - YES Network
- Cam Johnson on his strong first half (Video) - YES Network
- Nets get last laugh with impressive win over Kevin Durant, Suns - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets get last laugh with impressive win over Kevin Durant, Suns - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets hold off Kevin Durant, Suns to win Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson’s return to Phoenix ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Kevin Durant trade between Nets and Suns appears a win-win 10 months later ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson lead Nets past Kevin Durant, Suns in first matchup after big trade ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Phoenix Suns lose to Brooklyn Nets in Big 3’s home debut - Dana Scott - Arizona Republic