“I want to see our guys be able to do it again. It took a lot for us tonight to get this win. Now, can you get to Denver, get your mind right, get your body right and try to get one tomorrow, and not be comfortable with getting this win? We want one tomorrow also.”
That's what Jacque Vaughn had to say at the postgame podium, following an electric Brooklyn Nets victory over the Phoenix Suns. The celebrated homecoming of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson to face the man they were traded for, Kevin Durant, coincided with the real debut of Durant’s new superteam out West. An emotional beginning and end to the night for Brooklyn’s two wings sandwiched one hell of a game, which hung in the balance for 47 minutes and 57 seconds ... at which point Cam Thomas iced it with a pair of free throws.
Ready to do it again? That was the question Vaughn posed to his team, who traveled from the valley to the mountain-top to face the Denver Nuggets on a back-to-back.
And the Nets were ready to do it again. At least mentally. They competed hard out of the gates, missing shots but playing strong defense and cleaning up the glass against the defending champions. Physically, though? Brooklyn couldn’t fight science, faltering in the second half and giving way to extended garbage time in a loss that won’t sting too much. Brooklyn got beat by the schedule-makers as much as they did the Nuggets, who, as usual, were excellent.
Final Score: Denver Nuggets 124, Brooklyn Nets 101
Jamal Murray was playing in just his 12th game of the season on Thursday night, thanks to an array of bumps and bruises, thankfully nothing that’s compared to his ACL tear of April 2021. Still, he must have hated missing Denver’s last game, as he burst out of the gates against the Nets looking to kill.
He scored nine points in the first five minutes of this one, and had the early makings of a special performance. The Nets, however, kept the pace, and the score was 15-14 when the Nuggets took the first timeout of the ballgame. Neither team had shot a free throw yet, but it didn’t lead to an offensive dry spell:
Could the Nets really afford to play such a fast-paced, high-scoring game fresh off the plane?
We wouldn’t get our answer immediately; the scoring slowed to a snail’s pace for both teams after the first pause in action. But when Nikola Jokic was on the floor rather than old friend DeAndre Jordan, the Nuggets scored at merely a below-average level, keeping their offense out of the basement. The Nets didn’t have such a luxury, and as their 3-point shooting faltered, the bottom fell out completely.
The Nuggets led 52-39 at halftime, closer to a first quarter score based on the games Brooklyn has been playing this season. Yet, it’s hard to complain about what Vaughn’s team showed in that first half. They held the Nuggets to just 42% shooting from the floor, with efforts that erased any notions of fatigue:
This was a great block and save by Trendon Watford: pic.twitter.com/R596HDbzUV— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 15, 2023
Each team made just three measly 3-pointers in the first half, but the Nuggets had the big-time edge inside the arc. There, they shot 18-of-36, compared with Brooklyn’s 13-of-31. Part of this was their aversion to turnovers, as they coughed it up just twice compared to Brooklyn’s nine giveaways.
“For a team that doesn’t force turnovers, we gave them too many tonight,” said Vaughn.
Still, the Nets weren’t out of it. Solid team defense and just enough scoring from the likes of Cam Thomas:
Very nice reverse lay from Cam Thomas here. Only Net in double digits with 11: pic.twitter.com/NmyYBPqvQi— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 15, 2023
Jacque Vaughn may have applied some light public pressure on his guys, but he too was conscious of the travel and rest situation: Brooklyn’s head coach wen ten deep in the first half, giving Trendon Watford and rookie Jalen Wilson some serious minutes. Each attacked the glass relentlessly, contributing to their team’s edge in rebounding, but neither seemed comfortable pulling from deep and couldn’t fix Brooklyn’s lack of shooting.
The 3-point makes never came for the Nets, and and the lack of a deep game buried them in the third. It was at that point that Nikola Jokic decided to put the game away on offense, scoring 16 points in the period to finish with a modest (by his standards) triple-double of 26/15/10. As he continued to post up everyone from Nic Claxton to Royce O’Neale, Denver too eschewed the 3-point line, shooting just as poorly as Brooklyn. The difference? The hosts had the luxury of choice, as they scored 38 points in the third quarter while only making a single three.
Brooklyn’s starters didn’t play particularly poorly, but just couldn’t make shots to quell momentum. Mikal Bridges was the only starter to miss out on double-digit scoring, with nine points, as he only played 25 minutes and took eight shots. The Cams — Thomas and Johnson — combined for 23 points on 23 shots, neither registering an assist, while Nic Claxton barely missed out on a double-double with 10-and-9.
Spencer Dinwiddie, a University of Colorado alum, kept his team in it, sort of, with his offensive play. He racked up 17 points on the night and tossed eight assists compared to just two turnovers. That followed his 16/8/7 performance in Phoenix the night before, albeit in a much lower-stakes environment. Still, though, Brooklyn’s point guard continued to hoop in less-than-ideal circumstances, not only scoring but flashing the two-man game with Claxton. The pair hooked up for four assist-bucket combinations
That’s all there is to say about the first three quarters of the night, where the Nets played hard, even well at times, but didn’t make enough shots to break Denver into a sweat. Murray came out firing in the first quarter to finish with an efficient 16 points, and Jokic slammed the door shut on his way to a casual triple-double.
Said Vaughn: “You know I don’t like to use excuses, but I told my group I thought our intent was good coming into the game, we just didn’t have tonight, and on a team that was rested and ready for us. Tough back-to-back the emotional mental part of it, just didn’t have it tonight.”
The fourth quarter featured end-of-bench Nets Armoni Brooks and Harry Giles joining forces with Sharpe, Watford, and Wilson to play some fairly entertaining garbage time. If a team takes on the personality of their head coach, it was easy to see the trickle-down effect on Thursday night: competitiveness.
Vaughn used his challenge down 19 with five minutes left in the period, deployed a pressing defense with the white-flag group, and even drew up out-of-timeout plays:
Jacque Vaughn is ridiculously competitive. Challenged a call down 19 with the White Flag Lineup on the floor, then drew up this ATO after it: pic.twitter.com/0LVWQrMYwq— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 15, 2023
He and the group on the floor helped turn the final frame into an enjoyable watch, along with Ian Eagle and Sarah Kustok excelling as late-night entertainers on the broadcast. The Nets even made the Nuggets call a timeout to organize themselves as they cut the lead to 14 with four minutes left, though it never got closer than that.
Harry Giles III continued to score in bunches, scoring 11 points in 15 minutes of action, both of which were season-highs:
Harry Giles has nine points in nine minutes, including this alley-oop slam from Armoni Brooks: pic.twitter.com/tIShptEMAR— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 15, 2023
Jalen Wilson scored seven, hitting his first NBA three, while Sharpe and Watford scored eight apiece. If nothing else, extended garbage time provided some comfort television for Nets fans, who got to see some of their little-used favorites play extended ball without consequences.
Vaughn repeated that he wouldn't use the circumstances an excuse, both in pregame and in postgame: “Not going to use excuses. I’ll say that. I’ve done this plenty of times before, it is a tough trip, definitely...it’s part of your job, everyone does it at some point in the schedule.”
Not to mention the championship-quality Nuggets, who actually had to go out there and beat their opponent. Jokic’s team does that all the time anyway, with or without the help of the schedule. So, it may not be distressing loss for the Nets, given that Brooklyn now stands at 13-11, still riding the high of a euphoric road win on Wednesday night.
But it’s bull. Thursday night should have been Brooklyn’s chance to test themselves against the reigning champs on their turf, which was their best win of the season in 2022-’23. Hell, they probably wouldn’t have won — just ask Vegas what the odds would be. But to not get a real shot? Who did that help?
Am I taking the end of this game recap just to whine? Do I sound like a major homer? Probably. But hey, there’s always another game just around the corner. Maybe even sooner than it should be.
It’s Harry Giles time!
- Harry Giles posted 11 points in his 15 minutes, which I mentioned were both season-highs. It marked his first game with double-digit points since he scored a dozen against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 3, 2021, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.
- Jalen Wilson’s seven points are, of course, a career-high, as are his 17 minutes, four boards, and two assists. Not bad for his first real stat-line as a pro.
The Brooklyn Nets will zig-zag back West, traveling back to Northern California to face the fledgling Golden State Warriors, who made a major lineup change in their loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Tip-off is actually not too late on Saturday night, set for 8:30 p.m. ET.
- Box Score: Denver Nuggets 124, Brooklyn Nets 101 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Denver Nuggets 124, Brooklyn Nets 101 (Video) - NBA
- Frank Isola evaluates the Nets’ loss to the Nuggets (Video) - Meredith Marakovits & Frank Isola - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn on Nets’ loss to Nuggets (Video) - YES Network
- Jokic gets 10th triple-double of season as Nuggets beat Nets 124-101 - Dennis Georgatos - AP
- Nikola Jokic helps Nuggets dispatch Nets - Reuters
- Defending champ Nuggets show out Nets in another West Coast rout - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nikola Jokic posts triple-double as Mikal Bridges, Nets fall to Nuggets ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets dominated by Nikola Jokic and Nuggets, losing at mile-high altitude in second game of back-to-back ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nuggets’ “D” dominates Nets as Nikola Jokic makes more triple-double history - Patrick Saunders - Denver Post