The Brooklyn Nets sit at 9-9, but the highs and lows of the adolescent season have left fans feeling anything but average. Just in the past two weeks, Brooklyn’s first three-game losing streak was immediately followed by a three-game winning streak. A fourth straight ‘W’ was a lock on paper, facing a Charlotte Hornets team without their leading man, LaMelo Ball.
Well, aided by some porous Brooklyn defense, the Hornets shot a blistering 58.3% from deep in the Barclays Center on the way to a 129-128 victory. It was a shootout, to be sure, and an entertaining one at that. But it was not any fun for the Nets, who threw away the good vibes of that three-game winning streak.
To recapture them, they’d have to defeat the upstart Orlando Magic on Saturday evening, who have sprinted out to a 13-5 start on the back of the league’s third-best defense. The Magic entered Saturday riding a franchise-best nine-game winning streak, undefeated since the last time they visited Brooklyn back on November 14th, a 20-point loss. On that night, the Nets cracked a code the rest of the league hasn’t been able to; could they do it again to right the ship on Saturday night?
Yes. They certainly benefitted from the Magic playing the second leg of a back-to-back, as they missed layup after layup, but the Nets simply outplayed their opponent in all facets of the game. Needing to expel to sour taste of a bad loss to Charlotte, the Nets did that and more, handling the Magic for the second time in a row thanks to a well-rounded effort captained by a career night from Mikal Bridges.
Final score: Brooklyn 129, Orlando 101
Jacque Vaughn spoke softly but pointedly after his team’s loss to the Hornets on Thursday. He attributed allowing offensive rebounds to a “concentration issue,” he said “we did not do what we discussed, what we said we were going to do,” and ended his postgame presser after three brief minutes, an anomaly for the normally gregarious leader.
The Nets would have to respond without Dorian Finney-Smith, a late scratch from the lineup, though Dennis Smith Jr. would make his return to the rotation. But Brooklyn had nary an excuse against a Magic team — down Jonathan Isaac, Wendell Carter Jr., and Markelle Fultz — playing the second leg of a back-to-back.
They didn’t need one, exploding out of the gates with a vengeance, eager to turn the page and climb back above .500. Against an Orlando team light on outside shooting, the Nets played some of their most aggressive help defense of the season and held the visitors to 29% shooting in the first quarter. They only forced two turnovers, but racked up the deflections and blocked three shots. The defense looked and felt far, far different than their previous outing, no concentration issues to speak of.
And while Brooklyn converted those stops into eight early transition points, the story of their first-quarter offense was Mikal Bridges.
How about this bucket-block-bucket sequence from Mikal Bridges? He is hooping early, and the Nets lead 17-9: pic.twitter.com/c4bwUyIb3G— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 3, 2023
Bridges wears his team’s losses on his sleeve as much as any NBA player in recent memory; his press conferences following a loss are subdued, glancing down and mumbling through short, terse answers, far from the smiling jokester he’s known as.
It’s often a fool’s errand to question whether players care about winning, and everybody expresses it in their own way. But Bridges leaves little to the imagination, and he wore that attitude coming out of the locker room on Saturday night. He exploded for twenty-six first-quarter points, hitting three 3-pointers and attacking the rim relentlessly, shooting eight free-throws.
After each bucket, there were fist-pumps and celebrations, but little-to-no smiling. Just encouraging his teammates to keep applying the pressure:
What was Bridges feeling to open the game? “I was ready to play. Just didn’t like that loss against Charlotte...That’s what it is, I just wanna win. That’s me just scoring like that. That’s what it is. But, I just did not want to lose that game.”
Simple. Brooklyn brought the energy on Saturday night, out-rebounding, out-shooting, and out-hustling the Magic in a dominant 43-22 first quarter. But Bridges brought the scoring, and even that's an understatement. Play-by-play data goes back to the 1996-’97 season, and since then, no Net had scored 26 points in a first quarter. Not until Bridges did.
He’d slow down in the second quarter, but only marginally. The 27-year-old finished the first half with 34 points on 10-14 from the floor and 11-13 from the line, the highest-scoring half in the NBA this season, while blocking three shots on defense. Bridges took it upon himself to right the wrongs of Thursday night, and that attitude went past putting the ball in the hole.
“I knew that he would be ready to play,” said Vaughn. “He was as frustrated and disappointed as I was after the Charlotte game. You know, I’ve always talked about one of the things that makes him special is his will to win. And at the end of the day, it takes a lot to get yourself ready to play and do the things necessary to win. And most nights man you can not pencil but pin him in that he’s going to be available, that he’s going to give what he has. So I knew mentally, that he was ready to get off to a good start.”
While no other Net reached double-digits by half, all nine players who hit the floor scored, led by Cam Johnson’s nine points. They enjoyed the math advantage you’d expect against a non-shooting team like the Magic, going 8-of-18 from deep compared with the guests’ paltry 3-of-9. The Nets threw zone defense at Orlando for portions of the first half, but no matter what scheme they deployed, it worked.
Said Vaughn: “I talked about concentration the other night, and I think that’s what it started with. We kind of threw a few defenses out there and went back and forth and tried to get them thinking a little bit, slowing them down so we can keep them out of paint...So I think schematically, being in zone, toggling back and forth with zone and man, and some full-court and three-quarters [press] stuff, really got our activity level high. That was what we were hoping for, especially starting small the way we did.”
Brooklyn’s lead after two quarters of 73-51 was sizable, sure, but it’s hard to believe it wasn’t worse. Not only did the Magic shoot 3-pointers like it was 1987, but they shot 45% from the rim. Nic Claxton, Day’Ron Sharpe, and company contested shots nicely, but that’s 21% below league-average! Orlando simply missed too many bunnies, and other than Bridges, it was the story of the first half:
Orlando shot 45% at the rim in the first half, which should be impossible: pic.twitter.com/0PcnGUE9nq— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 3, 2023
The third quarter resembled a more even contest, and the Magic even cut the lead to single-digits for a brief moment. The usual suspects, Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, combined for 39 points on a sluggish 12-of-31 shooting, and were helped by Cole Anthony and Mo Wagner off the bench. Those two scored 20 and 18 points, respectively, and brought the Magic into the new millennium with some made 3-pointers.
However, nobody else reach double-digits for the Magic, and any hope they had of a huge comeback died at the hands of Spencer Dinwiddie. The starting point guard scored 17 of his 22 in the third quarter, including Brooklyn’s next nine after the lead fell to 87-78:
If may be impossible to hit daggers in the third quarter, but it’s tough to call Dinwiddie’s buckets anything else, as they ended the competitive portion of the night.
“You know, he understands the moment,” said Vaughn of his point guard. “Like, he’s been there before. He’s one of our seasoned veterans, but at the same time, he can roll off nine in a row and take over a game and know how to get people involved in the game. So it is definitely a luxury to see him execute the game plan, to be able to execute leading, giving the ball to the different individuals on the team.”
The 13-point lead Brooklyn brought into the fourth quarter quickly ballooned to 20 before each team cleared their benches. Cam Thomas was the Nets’ third-leading scorer of the night, shooting a rough 7-of-23 to reach his 20 points, but shot 4-of-9 from deep to boost Brooklyn’s 3-point percentage on the night to 41.2.
Dennis Smith Jr. filled up the box score in his return, not only bringing his brand of fire, trash-talking, and defensive intensity, but also ten points, six assists, and 11 rebounds. It was what he might call a savage return to action. (Why savage? “You don’t just miss six games and come back like that.”)
On Saturday, Smith provided what he planned to, being “a spark plug, bringing energy. Really no other energy than trying to win the game and being a good point-of-attack defender for our team. I think that’s important.”
Of his team-high 11 rebounds, Smith said, “It’s just impact. Rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, it’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
And what is this??
It’s the latest celebration, a seeming variation of Mikal Bridges three fingered celly. But it’s not reserved for the Nets small forward...
It is, Smith says, a secret.
Bridges laughed it off in a Sunday response...
The Determined Brooklyn Bridges
No matter. the determined Bridges, may have had a quiet second half, but he never lost that fire in his eyes:
Mikal Bridges is on a different type of time tonight. Any lip-readers? pic.twitter.com/3Tx7rh5CHi— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 3, 2023
Bridges finished with 42 on a crisp 12-of-20 and 15 made free-throws, a career high, but his impact went beyond an admittedly stacked box score. He led the Nets’ effort on both ends tonight, and made sure they'd come correct after the season’s low-point. A bad loss against Charlotte became just that: a bad loss, and nothing more. It was a textbook case of leading by example, a message only strengthened by dropping in bucket after bucket.
Brooklyn posted a monster rebounding advantage of 57-36 on the night (14-7 on offense), indicative of each team’s physicality, as well as Orlando’s inability to throw it in the ocean. The Magic shot 40% overall and just 31% from three, and matched the Nets with 11 turnovers. As a result, Brooklyn shot four more field-goal and free-throw attempts than Orlando, not that the extra possessions were the only difference in this one.
Jacque Vaughn’s view? “Great response from our group. A lot of times, that’s how you can really judge if the team is getting better. Do they want to get better? Is there a care factor to getting better? And we showed all three things tonight.”
All of a sudden, 10-9 doesn’t look too bad. Saturday night was a panacea for what had preceded it, not just a win against a good team, but a blowout that brightens everybody’s short-term outlook. The Brooklyn Nets brought an avalanche down on the Orlando Magic , spearheaded by Mikal Bridges.
It should surprise nobody that Mikal Bridges is the star of Saturday's Milestone Watch.
- Bridges’ 26 first-quarter points are the most from any Nets player in a first quarter since play-by-play tracking began in 1996-’97. They are also tied for the third-most in any period by a Net with Kevin Durant and Caris LeVert, trailing just Joe Johnson and D’Angelo Russell.
- The last time any player scored at least 26 in a first quarter? You have to go all the way back to February of 2022, where Luka Doncic dropped 28 on, who else, the L.A. Clippers.
- Bridges’ 34 points in the first half is the second-most in franchise history, trailing just Kyrie Irving, who dropped 41 in the first half of a March 2022 game vs. the Orlando Magic on his way to 60. It is also the most in a half by any player this season.
- Speaking of prolific halves, Brooklyn’s 73 first-half points were the most they've scored in a half this season, and the 22-point lead their largest at the break.
- To close on Bridges, his 15-18 performance from the line represents a career-high in both makes and attempts, and his 42 points marks his fourth 40-burger of his career, all coming as a Brooklyn Net.
- Dennis Smith Jr.’s stat-stuffing night is rewarded with its own little section: It was his fourth-career points/rebounds double-double, and his sixth straight game played with five-plus assists off the bench. He becomes the first Net to accomplish the latter feat since Spencer Dinwiddie in 2018-19. Lastly, DSJ played the least minutes (21) in a 10/10/5 game off the bench in franchise history.
From good to bad to worse: The return of Dennis Smith Jr. was a welcome sight, with the defensive-minded guard having missed Brooklyn’s previous six games. However, his two-time teammate Dorian Finney-Smith was a late scratch on the injury report with “right knee/foot soreness.”
Prior to Finney-Smith’s first missed game this season, Vaughn added some context to his absence, saying the soreness is “something that he reported this morning a little bit,” while citing Finney-Smith averaging 34 minutes of playing time over the last five games. Hopefully, the forward’s absence against the Orlando Magic is a one-off, and some rest eases the burden of his heavy workload.
Prior to the game, Brooklyn delivered the Ben Simmons update we were promised, and you can read our full report — with Jacque Vaughn’s comments on the matter — here. The SparkNotes version? Simmons, who missed his twelfth straight game with a lower back nerve impingement, received an epidural injection as planned this week, and his status will be updated in two weeks. In the meantime, he’ll ramp up his on-court activity, which as of now does not include any “rebounding drills or sprinting up the court,” according the Vaughn. The waiting game continues.
Cam Thomas’ Star Rises
This week, Cam Thomas appeared on JJ Redick’s renowned podcast, The Old Man and the Three, and was also the subject of a GQ profile written by Cam Wolf, not to mention an hour-long film breakdown from the Athletic’s Sam Vecenie on YouTube. The NBA is, as always, rich with storylines, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore Cam Thomas, no matter where you look.
Since we recapped Thomas’ busy week, the full episode of Thomas’ appearance on The Old Man and the Three dropped, and it’s well worth a listen:
In the teaser clip, Thomas discussed struggling with uneven playing time early in his career, but he and Redick expand on a host of other topics here. Namely, what Thomas has to do to improve (hint: defense and playmaking), playing for the same AAU coach, and Thomas’ unorthodox jumper.
The Brooklyn Nets will have three days off, then travel to Atlanta to face the Hawks. The game was added to the schedule after each team missed out on advancing to the knockout stage of the In-Season Tournament, explaining the healthy break Brooklyn has beforehand. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night
- Box Score: Brooklyn Nets 129, Orlando Magic 101 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Brooklyn Nets 129, Orlando Magic 101 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Mikal Bridges 34 points in first half (Video) - NBA
- Jacque Vaughn on Nets’ stellar performance and collaborative win (Video) - YES Network
- Mikal Bridges: Postgame vs. Magic (Video) - YES Network
- Dennis Smith Jr. on double-double against Magic (Video) - YES Network
- Bridges scores 42 points, 26 in first quarter, as Nets snap Magic’s nine-game winning streak - AP
- Mikal Bridges scores 42 to help Nets drub Magic, end their streak - Reuters
- Ben Simmons still weeks away from rejoining Nets as back injury saga continues- Peter Botte - New York Post
- How Jacque Vaughn’s evolution as a coach in helping the young Nets grow ($) - Brian Lewis - New York Post Sports+
- Mikal Bridges’ 26-point first quarter leads Nets to blowout win over Orlando Magic ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets Notebook: Ben Simmons will be re-evaluated in 2 weeks after receiving injection in lower back ($) - C.J, Holmes - New York Daily News
- Will Dorian Finney-Smith’s career-best shooting season earn him new contract with Nets? ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets’ Mikal Bridges scores franchise-record 26 first-quarter points in rout of Magic ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets need to get consistent to rise above .500 ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Ben Simmons sidelined at least 2 more weeks with back issue: What’s next for the Nets point guard - Mike Vorkunov - The Athletic