On Friday morning, the Brooklyn Nets held their first shootaround at HSS Training Center in two weeks. Following a five-game West Coast road trip, the team flew home from Salt Lake City on Tuesday morning, and forewent a Wednesday shootaround prior to their loss against the New York Knicks, prioritizing some rest.
Now that the black-and-white have been home for a few days, they opted to get some shots up before taking on the Denver Nuggets at the Barclays Center, the first game of a weekend back-to-back. Will Friday morning’s shootaround be the catalyst in halting a four-game losing streak, Brooklyn’s first real rough patch of the season?
Eh. A more likely catalyst is the return of Dennis Smith Jr. While he was listed as PROBABLE on Friday’s initial injury report, he told assembled media that he'd be good to go against the Nuggets.
After missing six games in November with a lower back strain, he played well in two Brooklyn victories against the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. Smith Jr. indeed earned the self-applied “savage” label after a 10/11/6/1/2 return against Orlando:
In his words, “You don’t just miss six and come back like that.”
Nets fans are now hoping he can do it again after missing the last seven games with an upper back ailment. According to Smith Jr., his path back to the court was not all peaches and cream: “I was hurting. I was in a lot of pain. I came in, I was doing my treatment. They left me back on the road trip, which was a good idea on their behalf.”
Yet, while the backup guard agonized over the feeling of “letting my team down,” he isn’t one to feel sorry for himself: “The NBA season, man, it’s like life. Ups and downs, you know? I just deal with it as it comes, I don’t look at it as tough.”
That’s the attitude the Nets need right now; Brooklyn’s losing streak slapped them back down to Earth, with a record that now stands at 13-14. Smith Jr. was blunt in his assessment of his team’s recent poor play, hardly getting into X’s and O’s but instead outlining a much simpler problem: “I feel like we weren’t competing at a high level honestly. I just feel like we went out there and we were just going through the game almost like we’re just trying to get the games over with.”
If there’s one player that can fix that mentality, it’s Smith Jr. The on-off numbers tell us that the Nets rebound and force turnovers at a much higher rate when the seventh-year man hits the court, which passes the vibes-test with flying colors.
Says Spencer Dinwiddie: “I think his energy and effort is contagious. What he brings on the defensive end is unique to anybody on this roster. He’s an impact player.”
So, when Smith Jr. roasts his teammates, frankly, over not their play but their disposition on a road trip that he watched from home with an injury, the criticism is welcomed with open arms. Per Dinwiddie, the NC State product’s word weighs “a ton. His character, his ability to play with a high level of intensity, guarding the other team’s best player, it all gives him credibility in the locker room.”
That’s good news considering the pointed words Smith Jr. delivered about Brooklyn’s offense on Friday. The Nets have the most extreme shot diet in the NBA thanks to their starting lineup, and it’s producing incomprehensible results. Despite shooting 42% from three, a mark that’d comfortably lead all NBA teams, the first five are scoring the ball miserably, with a 105.4 offensive rating.
They’re not even suffering from a case of the turnovers, so how does it all make sense? Well:
While Brooklyn’s mid-range numbers should experience some positive regression to the mean, the team’s shooting tendencies are simply unsustainable in the modern NBA, something Smith Jr. is well aware of.
Asked DSJ about Brooklyn’s mid-range heavy shot diet. Interesting answer:— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 22, 2023
“It’s a team game, and everybody — we gotta understand sacrifice. You’re not gonna get to do whatever you want to do, and that is what it is…we need shots at the rim. Got to have rim pressure.” pic.twitter.com/B31Pvazlqb
While one of many issues Brooklyn has faced over their recent stretch of poor play, it may be the most glaring. To convert so many 3-pointers at the rate the Nets take them, without turning the ball over, and still struggling to score? That's unacceptable, and Smith Jr. recognizes it.
Whether the defensive-minded, pace-pushing guard will be able to fix said issue is a different story. He admitted that there’s not much to say to someone like Mikal Bridges, experiencing a career-worst shooting slump from all areas of the court, other than to keep it pushing.
“I think it’s more so leading by example,” said Smith Jr. “You know, I’m gonna get out there and whenever I play, it’s just — I’m leaving it all out on the floor. So you’re gonna see that, and that’s mistake or not. Make or miss, I’m going 110 whenever I get a chance to. So, it’d be more so leading by example, or showing like, ‘We all out here with you, we all are struggling too, it is what it is. I mean, it’s not just you, it’s the whole team.’”
Will DSJ’s return be enough to lead the Brooklyn Nets to victory against the reigning champs? Maybe, maybe not. They beat Denver last year following the superstar trades. Smith’s personal matchup with Reggie Jackson, having a resurgent season off Denver’s bench (which old friend Matt Brooks broke down here) should be entertaining, as well as any time he spends guarding Jamal Murray.
As of shootaround, Smith Jr., was unsure if he’d be facing a minutes restriction, though he promised to “leave it all on the floor,” whether for “five minutes or 35. If it was up to me, it’d be 48.”
That’s the attitude the Brooklyn Nets missed from Dennis Smith Jr. during their recent skid. Once again, his return back into the fold will be a sight for sore eyes on Friday night, as the Nets take on the Nuggets.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET from the Barclays Center.