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Brooklyn Nets survive, send Detroit Pistons to NBA infamy in 118-112 win

It was dicey the whole way for the Nets, but a win is a win. And for the Pistons, who now stand alone in NBA history with 27 straight of them, a loss is a loss.

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Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Saturday night was merely the first battle in the Brooklyn Nets’ fight against infamy. From the comfort of the Barclays Center, they defeated the Detroit Pistons, handing them a record-tying 26th straight loss as an early Christmas gift. After two days off, the Nets and Pistons were set to play the second half of their home-and-home on Tuesday night.

Which team entered with more pressure? It’s hard to say; securing the most consecutive losses in NBA history is quite the badge of dishonor, but being the team that stands in the way? Sheesh.

It’s hard to beat the same NBA team twice in a row — you hear it all the time — but does that really apply to these Pistons? Jacque Vaughn and his Nets could protest all they want, but they’d be playing not to lose, rather than to win. A Brooklyn loss in Detroit on Tuesday would render Saturday’s win meaningless, and blow any sort of cheery holiday vibes out of the water.

The Nets narrowly escaped Doomsday, stapling the 2023-’24 Detroit Pistons into NBA history while bringing their own record to .500 at the 30-game mark. Brooklyn may have all the makings of a perfectly average team, but even adequacy was too much for these Pistons to handle.

Detroit blew an early 14-point lead, no unforgivable sin in the modern NBA, but even had a five-point lead to their name in the fourth quarter which quickly evaporated thanks to a monster Brooklyn run. The Pistons, led by an All-NBA effort from Cade Cunningham, had stretches of solid play that make you wonder how this squad could ever manage to lose this prolifically.

Until it hit the fan. A turnover bled into a crucial Brooklyn run, a missed shot led to three minutes of sulking. The Nets did not play their best basketball of the year on Tuesday night, but they didn’t need to in Detroit. They merely needed to stay the course.

Final Score: Brooklyn Nets 118, Detroit Pistons 112.

In the first quarter, an unstoppable force met an unmovable object, and the Nets got the short end of the stick. See, for all the inevitability of Detroit’s losses as potentially the worst team in NBA history, Brooklyn’s starting lineup has been a train wreck themselves. That group made their 12th straight start on Tuesday night, but other than being healthy (knock on wood), they haven’t done anything well, posting a horrific -23.48 net rating in their time together.

By the time Jacque Vaughn made his first substitutions midway through the first quarter, his team trailed 20-7 thanks to the same old problems. Brooklyn would post five turnovers in the opening period, killing not only their offense but their defense too:

The Pistons came out playing inspired basketball, eager to end their losing streak after a Christmas interlude, and they brought the funk to Brooklyn behind a lively defense and even a lively home crowd.

Jacque Vaughn, though, anticipated such a start: “I didn’t sleep very well last night anticipating how tough this game was going to be...It was gonna be a tall task for us and it’s gonna be playing a team back-to-back like that.”

Thankfully, Brooklyn’s other trend — inspiring bench play — continued behind the energy of Dennis Smith Jr. and the offensive prowess of Royce O’Neale. The two combined for 14 points and five assists in the first half; throw in more consistent minutes from Dorian Finney-Smith and Day’Ron Sharpe, and that fearsome foursome once again delivered.

“I think we just like, came together and realized we gotta play harder,” said Sharpe. “These guys haven’t had a win in a long time, right? They need a win just as bad as us.”

DSJ brought his typical feistiness on both ends, making Cade Cunningham’s life hell while willing his way into the paint as the only Net who can consistently do so:

O’Neale, meanwhile, went offensive supernova mode for a couple minutes in the second quarter, tallying two assists and eight points in the span of three minutes that changed the tenor of the game:

Many of the bench-heavy minutes came with Cam Thomas by their side, making for a defensively-slanted lineup with one pure bucket-getter to keep them afloat. The strategy, which Vaughn laid out in detail after Saturday’s win, paid dividends once again. Thomas led Brooklyn with 11 first-half points, many of which came with that bench group:

“The second unit was awesome,” said Vaughn. We needed them at the end of the first and the second quarter to give us some life... and they did.”

The first half was the same old story for each squad, as the Pistons blew any semblance of momentum they’d garnered once the reserves came in, with the Nets experiencing the opposite. They turned a deficit as large as 14 points in the first quarter into a semi-comfortable 61-54 lead at the half, benefitting from improved play as well as typical Detroit stink:

Said Vaughn of the first half: “I think they just hit first and that started with — they were picking up for court. There was a want and a desperation from that group that we saw early. Good thing we didn’t panic, we stayed together.

And it looked like the visitors would stay together for the rest of the night, leaping out to an 11-point lead midway through a third quarter in which the starting group was merely alright instead of catastrophic. With Mikal Bridges’ struggling to get off the ground, his teammates picked up the slack.

Nic Claxton put up a strong 11/11 double-double, adding three blocks and a couple of highlight sequences:

Cam Johnson tossed in had another efficient if understated performance, finishing as the team’s leading scorer with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-6 from deep. It was his highest scoring game of the season. He didn’t force the issue, but rarely made a mistake, in many ways the most reliable Net of the night. Thomas finished with 17 points on a solid 7-of-13 shooting, although he played sparingly in the second half.

Vaughn attributed Thomas’ late-game absence to the strength of the bench units: “There’s so much confidence I have in that group, and so tonight, I changed the rotations a little bit to get a taste of that. We got a little bit of Mikal, not on the floor with CT at the same time...”

The story of the second half, though, was the Pistons’ display of resiliency for perhaps the first time all season. Cade Cunningham started to take over, pulling up for middy after middy in the third quarter to bring his team back from the dead. The jumbo-sized front-court of Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren, the latter of whom had missed the previous eight games to injury, worked out, much to the surprise of Pistons fans.

The two beefy bigs combined for 26 boards, not exactly rim-protectors but certainly physical enough to have the hosts looking like a real NBA team.

Not even the superb Brooklyn bench could stop the tide in the fourth quarter, as Bojan Bogdanović (23 points) and Cunningham hit back-to-back threes to give the Pistons a late 97-92 lead. The crowd chanted “Let’s go Pis-tons” loudly, as Detroit’s starting lineup was back in the game and playing with a late lead. The end of The Streak was near.

Until it wasn’t. The Brooklyn Nets immediately ripped off a 13-0 run to take an eight-point lead. Mikal Bridges finally poured in some buckets and free-throws to finish with 21 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including some huge ones to quell Detroit’s momentum:

Brooklyn got contributions across the board during the fourth quarter, whether it was Bridges or a couple of 3-point daggers from Johnson and Finney-Smith, who finished 3-of-6 from deep while playing every second of the final frame. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Day’Ron Sharpe, who posted an identical 11/11 line to Claxton while saving his best play of the night for crunch-time.

Said Vaughn: “It’s just great to see him be able to string and stack days and games up back-to-back...He has the ability to rebound the basketball, and there’s a toughness that’s about him that we need on a lot of nights just because he’s a big dude, and we need a big dude in the middle to push and grab rebounds and set screens and be okay doing that.”

Sharpe helped the Nets separate for good, excelling at his big-dude-in-the-middle duties. Rather than switching down the stretch, Brooklyn stayed with their base drop coverage, and it was hard to argue with the results thanks to Sharpe’s efforts:

“I think it’s just my game,” said Sharpe of his dominant fourth-quarter stretch. “You know, just my motor, I don’t know. Like, when I’m on the court, I just be so locked in. Like, I don’t be thinking about nothing else, just what’s going on in front of me.”

Cunningham prevented any garbage time by continuing a tear to 41 points, shooting 15-of-21 and doing it from everywhere on the court. The third-year man did not sit in the second half but only grew stronger as the game progressed, even striking some fear into Brooklyn’s heart with repeated finishes at the basket:

The Brooklyn Nets did not defeat Cunningham and the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night. They merely survived the trap of their season, escaping the home-and-home with two wins to get back to .500.

Throughout 96 minutes of basketball over two games, Detroit looked very much like an NBA team, infrequently overmatched or a cesspool of embarrassment. Their starting lineup, with Duren or without him, won the majority of their minutes against Brooklyn who was now facing an elephant into the room.

The Pistons, though, just could not endure. The Nets got punched in the face but but didn’t blink in a game they, frankly, could not lose.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “There is outside noise, and with guys with social media, and being on their phones, they hear it. They see it. I did.”

Facing a five-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter with the pressure of being The Team That Lost To The Pistons hanging above them like a guillotine blade, Jacque Vaughn didn’t call a timeout.

His message? “Go play. We’ve done this before.”

It got through. Brooklyn reeled off the game-deciding run, composing themselves because they had, in fact, done it before. I mean, they’re not the Pistons.

Milestone Watch

The Pistons’ 27th straight loss is the milestone to end all milestones, but there were some cheerier accomplishments on the Nets side of things.

  • Cam Johnson’s 24 points counted for a season-high, and he now has four straight games with 15+ points.
  • It was the third game of the season where each of Brooklyn’s bigs accounted for a double-double. They now have 12 on the season, with seven for Nic Claxton and five for Day’Ron Sharpe.
  • Sharpe’s five double-doubles off the bench tie him with Bobby Portis for the league-lead, and his four blocks on Tuesday were good for a career high.
  • Claxton has now registered a season-best six straight games with multiple blocks.

Lonnie Walker Setback

Lonnie Walker missed his 12th straight game on Tuesday with a left hamstring strain, yet to appear for Brooklyn in December. On the 20th, the Nets released a medical update that stated Walker was targeting a return sometime this week, but Jacque Vaughn put a kibosh on that idea in his pregame comments.

The setback has little to do with Walker’s hamstring, but rather a virus the backup guard has been dealing with that’s prevented him from working out on the court.

Per Evan Barnes of Newsday:

Walker’s next chance to suit up will come on New Year’s Eve, where the Nets travel to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder.

Next Up

Milwaukee Bucks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets return home for the second leg of a back-to-back. They’ll face a Milwaukee Bucks team already licking their wounds in the Big Apple after losing to the New York Knicks in the first game of the NBA’s Christmas Day slate.

Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night.

For a different perspective, head on over to Detroit Bad Boys, our fellow SB Nation site that covers the Pistons.