Mikal Bridges was refreshingly honest following the Brooklyn Nets’ December 8 victory over the Washington Wizards. Facing a five-game West Coast gauntlet, Bridges said that while “you obviously want to win every game...don’t come back under .500. That’s the mindset.”
Not exactly the loftiest goals. The Nets embarked on their journey at 12-9, meaning only a winless road trip would send them back under .500. Over a week later, Brooklyn sits at 13-12 after the first four games away from home, a last-second loss to the Golden State Warriors having killed some of the vibes beating the Phoenix Suns provided.
The Nets have already avoided Bridges’ worst-case scenario, but returning East with just one win, albeit a good one, in their pocket would feel disappointing, no? Their last chance to notch another W came on Monday night, as they faced the Utah Jazz, unquestionably a case of saving the least for last.
Utah entered at 9-17, sporting the fifth-worst net rating in the NBA. Neither their offense nor their defense has been particularly inspiring, and the only remaining question facing the Jazz this season is if they make Lauri Markkanen available for trade. Pulling out the last game of a grueling road trip is no easy feat, but the Nets were well set up to do it.
Brooklyn was still set up to pull out a win after one half of play, but the game slipped through of their hands in the second half as the Jazz started to cash in their 3-point looks. Each one hit like a body blow to the Nets, and it ultimately became a knockout, as two long weeks out West came to an unsatisfying end.
Final Score: Utah Jazz 125, Brooklyn Nets 108
The Utah Jazz made no bones about how they were going to attack the Nets in the first team. The hosts entered Monday’s action top-ten league-wide in both fast-break points and offensive rebounding, and imposed that aggressive style of basketball against Brooklyn early.
They doubled the Nets up on the offensive glass 8-4, and the margin in transition was even wider at 13-4. The Jazz, sporting their sweet purple-mountain throwbacks, embraced some of that old school identity, embracing two avenues that have led to points for as long as basketball has been around.
Said Cam Thomas: “It’s hard on anybody when you play defense great for a full 20, 24 seconds or whatever they shoot at. Then when they get offensive rebounds, it’s kind of deflating.”
At first, it appeared as though Brooklyn was on their way to being run out of the gym, failing to get back in transition repeatedly, partially due to the backcourt duo of Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie lagging behind to argue non-foul calls:
Nets gonna need to shore up their transition D, tough in the last game of a roadie: pic.twitter.com/rwrqgDlxSF— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
Thomas picked up an early tech and missed a few shots in the paint, a far cry from his 41-point night in San Francisco. Yet, he and Dinwiddie each picked recovered nicely, combining for 22 points and seven assists to lead the way for the Nets in the first. It was a typical performance from the offensively-slanted duo, with Dinwiddie working the pick-and-roll to account for five of those assists, while Thomas put up a dozen shots, some self-created...
He had one of these plays Saturday, Thomas has figured out the best way to beat a double team can be to escape it: pic.twitter.com/xSUiVBxQPH— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
...and others not:
Great look from Mikal Bridges to find CT for three: pic.twitter.com/MGzDwLo9R4— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
Bridges completed the trifecta of double-digit Nets scorers with a modest ten points on 3-of-8 shooting, but made two long-balls. Overall, Brooklyn shot 7-of-12 from three in the first half, and while they couldn’t get out in transition, their accuracy from deep led them to a 59-54 halftime lead.
Utah may have scraped the barrel for extra points, but their normal offense lagged behind. They shot just 4-of-18 from deep in the first half, and outside of Collin Sexton leading the way with 16 points, nobody had much to write home about.
That all changed in the third quarter. The Nets made a concerted effort to fix the rebounding and transition game, more than doubling both their o-board total and points on the break:
Nets making the Jazz defend in transition, where they are not very good: pic.twitter.com/ZUqiD9n522— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
It wasn’t enough, though, to salvage a fledgling half-court offense that struggled to score without an offensive rebound. The Twins combined for 20 points on a tough 6-of-25 shooting.
Bridges pulled no self-punches, saying he “just did everything bad: Missing shots, free throws, not defending, not rebounding...letting my teammates down, coaches down, playing 5-on-4 out basically while I’m out there. I’ve just gotta be better, and I won’t let that happen again.”
His misses — and his teammates’, of course — allowed the Jazz to continue running, and the hosts put up a whopping 30 fast-break points on the evening.
Worse yet, their half-court offense started to click post-halftime, largely on the strength of improved 3-point shooting. Utah’s bullish back-court of Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker got hot, combining for eight triples on their way to 27 points each. Rangy forwards John Collins and, of course, Lauri Markkanen contributed as well, though Brooklyn’s defense wasn’t exactly impenetrable:
Jazz shot 4-18 from three in the first half, they are 5-7 in the 3Q and BKN's defense hasn't been ideal: pic.twitter.com/pVZSvS4TVf— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
It remained that way.
Utah finished by shooting a blistering 10-of-16 from deep in the second half, as their back-court continued to dominate. Markkanen contributed another 20 points, and Walker Kessler patrolled the paint to block five shots; all of it proved too overwhelming for a Nets team clearly fighting an uphill battle with fatigue.
Nic Claxton blocked three shots on the interior, but couldn't prevent the 3-point storm nor add more than 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting on the other end. Dinwiddie and Thomas, as they were against Golden State, maintained the offense for as long as they could. The former put up another double-double with 17 points, 11 assists, and eight boards, willing Brooklyn to some strong possessions.
Thomas, again, was the offensive star, catching a brief heater in the fourth quarter to give the Nets a modicum of hope. He shot 5-of-7 from deep on his way to 32/4/3, flexing the catch-and-shoot muscles his coaching staff has strongly encouraged:
Cam Thomas showing how he can be a proficient catch-and-shoot player, that high release point is lethal. Up to 32 points but BKN can't get a stop: pic.twitter.com/lRdEULAAV9— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 19, 2023
Despite his shot-making, the Nets were, as Ian Eagle put it, stuck in quicksand. Every bucket that had the potential to change momentum was immediately countered by a Sexton trip to the line — he shot 12-of-13 there — or a Horton-Tucker three. The reverse of Saturday’s contest in Golden State, the Nets started well but ended slow, and it turned the final three minutes of this one into little more than garbage time.
Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale each hit two 3-pointers off the pine, but Utah won the bench battle 35-25. It was a confluence of poor outcomes for Brooklyn, not only fighting an opponent’s hot shooting on the last day of a lengthy road trip, but doing so short-handed.
Bridges, Dinwiddie, and Thomas all played 35 minutes while initiating the vast majority of offensive possessions, and each wore their fatigue at various points in the night. Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Smith Jr. may not have shut down the Jazz beyond the arc, but they certainly would have pushed the pace with fresh(er) legs while providing relief on Sexton and Horton-Tucker.
“The toll added up tonight,” said Brooklyn’s head coach.
The Jazz took this game, looking like last year’s version of themselves. Kessler protected the paint, allowing Utah to rebound, run, and eventually, shoot well. The Nets were not totally hopeless, despite the lopsided final score. They just needed a near-perfect fourth quarter to pull off the comeback, for which Brooklyn had neither the bodies nor the energy.
Said Jacque Vaughn: “This trip took a toll on us, mentally and physically. And so now, we’re 13-and-13, and we have to go home and regroup.”
Despite the bitter loss, Milestone Watch returns with some updates on Brooklyn’s backcourt:
- Cam Thomas has now totaled six 30-point games this season in just 17 games after his 32 tonight. That matches the six 30-burgers he put up over his first two seasons, 124 total games.
- Spencer Dinwiddie’s second consecutive double-double was his fourth of the season, all of the points-assists variety. His other two double-doubles, both in late November, also came in consecutive games.
- The game also saw Jalen Wilson get some rotation minutes, the first for any of the Nets three 2023 draft picks. He finished with five points including his first NBA 3-point make, his only shot in seven minutes.
The Nets return home, but hardly get a break. They’ll have one day of rest, the usual, and take on the New York Knicks. Tip-off from the Barclays Center is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night.
- Box Score: Utah Jazz 125, Brooklyn Nets 108 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Utah Jazz 125, Brooklyn Nets 108 (Video) - NBA
- Frank Isola on Nets’ loss to Jazz to end road trip (Video) - Nancy Newman & Frank Isola - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn speaks after Nets’ loss in Utah (Video) - YES Network
- Dorian Finney-Smith on playing vs. Jazz (Video) - YES Network
- Nets finish brutal Western trip with loss to Jazz as Cam Johnson exits early - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Dorian Finney-Smith didn’t make a big deal over role Nets change - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets run out of gas in loss to Jazz, end five-game West Coast swing with 1-4 record - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets get off to better start but falter in second half, lose to Jazz - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Sexton’s stellar run continues in Jazz win over Nets - Ryan Miller - KSL