The Brooklyn Nets were facing quite an obstacle to ending their four-game losing streak on Friday night at the Barclays Center: the reigning champions. The Denver Nuggets rolled into town at 19-10, fresh off a win in Toronto and just over a week removed from curb-stomping these very Nets.
To be fair, the Nets were on the second half of a road back-to-back, always a Herculean task when playing in the Mile High City. However, even when Brooklyn hasn’t been facing such unfavorable circumstances, things haven’t gone much better. After all, they were coming off perhaps the most dispiriting loss of the year on Wednesday, a 121-102 drubbing at the hands of the New York Knicks.
At least they would have Dennis Smith Jr. back for Friday’s contest. They backup guard had missed the previous seven games with a back issue, and had appeared in just two of Brooklyn’s last 15 games overall. Even with DSJ back in the fold, it'd be quite the battle for the Nets, as Jacque Vaughn explained in pregame.
The head coach acknowledged that the Nuggets would make some outstanding plays on Friday, but said the question facing his group was, “can you fight that reaction and do your part as a teammate that next possession? That’s the challenge to this group, and that’s the challenge of being the next level player.”
The Nets largely responded to that challenge. After a slow start that could have buried them, Brooklyn woke up, led by a bench unit featuring Smith Jr. They battled back-and-forth with the Denver Nuggets for the next three-and-a-half quarters, all the way down to the final buzzer.
But is apathy better than heartbreak? Nets fans now know both, as Brooklyn couldn’t finish the job against Denver, losing in agonizing fashion.
Final Score: Denver Nuggets 122, Brooklyn Nets 117.
In the early-going, the Nets looked much more like the team that had lost four straight than the one that had gone 7-2 prior. They trailed 18-7 before the first wave of substations were made, and worse, it wasn’t even Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić doing the damage. Michael Porter Jr. scored eight points in the first three minutes; then the Nets completely lost Aaron Gordon in semi-transition, leading to the same old frustrations that Wednesday night brought:
Nobody keeps track of Aaron Gordon in semi-transition, guys are pissed, and JV calls a timeout down 14-7: pic.twitter.com/dvw3bvQXiz— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
The Nuggets, however, would not be able to extend their lead from there. Brooklyn’s bench, as they had done in the early part of the season, entered the game with a hunger the starters simply didn’t bring. Day’Ron Sharpe grabbed four offensive boards, Dorian Finney-Smith went 3-of-4 from deep on his way to a +15 first half, and Dennis Smith Jr. returned with a vengeance.
“Yeah, I think you definitely felt their presence when that group started to sub and come in and really put their imprint on the game. I thought their physicality, their ability to have deflections, and our activity level was pretty high when those guys checked in,” said Jacque Vaughn.
Throw in Royce O’Neale, who tallied a modest four points and three assists, and there’s a case to be made that Brooklyn’s four best players in the first half came off the bench. It helps, of course, that they were facing a Denver bench made up of the young (Christian Braun, Julian Strawther) and old (DeAndre Jordan), that foursome brought an energy and force the Nets desperately needed on the heels of a four-game losing streak.
Just a great sequence from the bench, led by Dennis Smith Jr. He makes a great dump-off to Claxton for a dunk, gets a steal, then DFS hits a three on the break: pic.twitter.com/SYJJzkklJe— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
Those four, with Cam Thomas, got some run as a unit training camp, per Vaughn, and diplayed the same qualities then as we saw on Friday night: “They have a little bit of flexibility. Dennis’ ability to be into the basketball gives you an advantage, then you have Doe and Royce who have the ability to cover for each other, and if Day’Ron is protecting the rim for us, we got a lot of dudes out there covering for each other, and that’s what the defense is. Then we put a Cam out there with that group to give us a lead scorer.”
Not a single Net reached double figures before half-time, but they presented the definition of a balanced scoring attack. The Twins as well as each reserve outside of Smith Jr. had either eight or nine points. Once again, the offense was humming, as Brooklyn posting 18 assists on 22 made field-goals while shooting 8-of-19 from three.
The hosts won the rebounding battle, they won the transition points battle (9-6), and only turned it over five times. The Nuggets, led by their front-court trio, were playing just fine, but certainly didn’t look unbeatable.
Out of the halftime break, the Nets struggled with Denver’s size, certainly neither the first nor last team to face that problem. Denver punished Brooklyn’s by feeding Aaron Gordon down low multiple times, to which all Brooklyn could do was send him to the free-throw line. Then, danger time arrived, as Jamal Murray scored 16 points in the blink of an eye, erasing an invisible first half:
Jamal's got 14 points so far in the third pic.twitter.com/ZLFyI2H0GZ— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 23, 2023
It was a reminder of Denver’s firepower, flame-throwing from the outside just as the Nets shored up the interior. Nikola Jokić, of course, was at the center of it all. He finished with a quiet 31/11/7/2/3 stat-line, to the extent such numbers can be quiet, but the big Serb did anything and everything for the visitors.
Nic Claxton finished with his own impressive numbers: Ten points, season-highs with 16 boards and six assists, even adding three blocks, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop the Joker: “He does that every night. The only thing you can do is really just make it tough for him. I think I did a pretty good job of that tonight. I mean, yeah, he had his normal numbers. I mean, he’s the MVP for a reason, so he’s gonna do that. “
Jokić brought the ball up the court, posted up, threw entry passes, received them, all while finishing as the game’s second-leading scorer:
Nikola Jokić plays every position on the court—center, point guard, you name it. Whatever the Nuggets need from him.— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) December 23, 2023
On this play, he cuts off a pindown screen from Jaml Murray into a midrange shot like a wing. pic.twitter.com/fPrn2qeZM8
Jokić checked out of the game toward the end of the third quarter, leaving his team with an 87-81 lead. To that point, Denver had won his minutes by a whopping 18 points, with the Nets nearly making up all that ground in his resting minutes. Friday’s question wasn’t only about beating the two-time MVP, it was about destroying his backups.
And the Nets continued to do that into the fourth quarter. Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale continued their strong play, combing to score 25 points on a pristine 8-of-14 shooting, including six-of-nine from deep.
Smith Jr., who finished with seven points, five assists, and no turnovers, hooked up with Sharpe a few times, as the backup guard gave Brooklyn valuable boosts on both ends of the court:
I'd say Dennis Smith Jr. is probably the best interior passer on this Nets team. Up to four assists/no TOs, while Day'Ron has 11/9/4/2/2 after the 3Q: pic.twitter.com/4sBXaSpHeZ— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
Sharpe turned in perhaps his best performance of the season. His 13/10/4/2/2 line told the truth: He finished a few opportunities inside, grabbed his share of boards, and provided the rim protection normally absent from Clax-less lineups.
Said Vaughn: “I thought his decision-making was really good tonight whether he got an offensive rebound and decided to put it back, or sometimes just getting the possession for us.”
Cam Thomas started to cook in the fourth quarter, where he scored 11 of his team-high 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting. As the quarter progressed, he was supported by Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Bridges, rebounded from a career-worst shooting slump, but didn’t light the world on fire. He shot 7-of-16 while scoring 14 points, but the 27-year-old also dropped six assists, including this crucial dime in crunch-time:
Might be Mikal's best pass of the season, manipulating the low-man to get Day'Ron an and-one: pic.twitter.com/4d4MjlX0gL— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
Johnson took just nine shots, but impressed when he did let it go, shooting 3-of-6 form deep on his way to 16 points. Even Spencer Dinwiddie, who was invisible for most of the night with 2-of-4 shooting to score six points, hit a huge step-back three to keep Brooklyn within a possession down the stretch.
It all set up an exciting finish at the Barclays Center, both good and bad news for a Nets that’s seen many of them this year, entering Friday with a 7-6 record in clutch time games.
That record would fall to 7-7, an even .500 befitting a team that, after this now-five-game losing streak, has looked painfully average. Murray hit a big shot, Jokić did as well, and a defensive breakdown led to a Peyton Watson dunk for the Nuggets.
Said Finney-Smith: “I mean, they have two All-Stars who did their job, made tough shots. Murray made a couple of tough shots. You know, Jokic also, I think he made that step-back three and I was like ‘dang, what can we do? Big fella doing everything.’ But you know, that’s what they do and there’s a reason why they won the championship.
The defending champions executed beautifully in a one-possession game down the stretch, and the Nets just weren’t as perfect.
Bridges missed a game-tying free-throw with just over a minute left, then he missed a jumper out of an isolation on the next possession. Thomas hit a ridiculous four-point play to give Brooklyn unexpected life...
A Cam Thomas 4-point play has given Brooklyn life. Down 115-114 with 20 seconds to play: pic.twitter.com/FFhubR4p2e— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
...but that life was taking away just as quickly and, in typical Nets fashion, brutally. Down 116-114 with Murray on the line, even a make from Denver’s electrifying guard wouldn’t kill Brooklyn. The game would still be within one possession for the Nets, one of the league’s premier 3-point shooting teams.
Wow. Well, the Nets can't get a rebound on the free-throw line, and that'll probably do it: pic.twitter.com/6TfdI0iVp9— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
The absolute worst-case scenario unfolded, as Brooklyn failed to secure the defensive rebound as Murray’s own miss ricocheted right back to him. He hit the subsequent two free-throws for his 31st and 32nd points, leading all scorers.
Vaughn went in-depth on his thinking, notably absent the Nets’ two centers, after the game:
This one play did not cause the loss, of course. Brooklyn played their best basketball since Phoenix, and even out-rebounded the physically imposing Nuggets 45-to-41 on the night. The Nets even ended up outscoring their championship-caliber guests in paint, 58-to-54. None of that, however, is easy to swallow in a close loss that ends with a missed box-out on the free-throw line.
Sure, Brooklyn fought like hell against a superior opponent. Sure, the return of Dennis Smith Jr. revitalized the bench, in turn giving the whole team the juice that’s been missing lately. And yes, the long-term sings the Nets showed on Friday night will likely be more important than the final score, down the road.
But at the end of the day, it was the Brooklyn Nets’ fifth-straight loss, and plunged their record to 13-15. So, good luck believing in all those positives.
Despite the loss, an improved performance means we have a much healthier list of milestones from Friday night. Saving the good news for last.
- The Nets had a season-high-tying seven players in double figures tonight (previously done on 10/27/23 at Dallas).
- In addition to his career-high-tying six assists, Nic Claxton posted a career-high-tying 16 rebounds. Some crooked numbers in his box score to be certain.
- Day’Ron Sharpe’s 13 points and ten boards were good for his fourth double-double of the season. That matches the total from his first two seasons combined, and ties him for the league-lead in double-doubles off the bench (Bobby Portis).
It's the moment you’ve alllll been waiting for, as the Brooklyn Nets take on the Detroit Pistons. The game, the second of an all-home back-to-back for the Nets and the first of two against Detroit, is an opportunity to hand the Pistons a record-tying 26th consecutive loss. Oh yeah, Joe Harris returns.
“You can’t put your head down and feel sorry because you gotta go win,” said Mikal Bridges in previewing the road ahead. “There’s 82 of them, so you gotta get ready for the next one. Learn, and be prepared for the next game.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night.
- Box Score: Denver Nuggets 122, Brooklyn Nets 117 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Denver Nuggets 122, Brooklyn Nets 117 (Video) - NBA
- Jacque Vaughn on Nets’ loss to Denver (Video) - YES Network
- Dennis Smith Jr. on returning to action (Video) - YES Network
- Murray, Jokic help defending champion Nuggets outlast Nets, 122-117 - Denis P. Gorman - AP
- Jamal Murray’s 32 points carry Nuggets past Nets - Reuters
- Nets battle but fall to Nuggets for fifth straight loss - Peter Botte - New York Post
- Ben Simmons ‘doing well’ but still has no timetable for Nets return: ‘No expectations’ - Peter Botte - New York Post
- Nets lose 5th straight to Nuggets, but bench play deserves praise ($) - C,J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Ben Simmons breaks silence on injury: ‘Not every game is promised. Injuries happen ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets falter at the finish vs. Nuggets as losing streak grows to five ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Health update on Nets’ Ben Simmons: Wait till next year ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets’ Ben Simmons reveals expectations for return amid extended injury absence - Erik Slater - Clutch Points
- Jamal Murray erupts in second half, starters carry Nuggets to win at Brooklyn Nets - Bennett Durando - Denver Post