The Brooklyn Nets did it. While “it” wasn’t the most inspiring feat, as the team avoided being the one’s to let the Detroit Pistons off the hook and end their historic losing streak, there’s a sense of triumph having now sifted through all that pressure and finishing the job. It’s almost sarcastic, a The Man by Aloe Blacc x Pat Bev edit kind of win, but a win nonetheless.
Taking down the league’s worst team, the losers of 26 in a row, sounds like simple task. It was anything but in Motor City tonight. Early on, the Nets looked almost certain to play the suckers, fall at Detroit’s hands, and become the butt of endless jokes across the league for the rest of the year.
But Brooklyn found a way to tread water as Detroit came with strong waves of energy early on, likely born out of some understandable desperation. Cade Cunningham was the best player on the floor, adding 41 while shooting 15-21 on field goals.
But Brooklyn’s balanced attack, insured by another strong bench showing, got them to the finish line with a 118-112 victory. Here’s what we learned.
Explore Taking Mikal Off the Ball
Mikal Bridges spoke often last year about wanting to develop his playmaking abilities and the Nets have obliged this year — allowing him to initiate offensive actions both in the pick and roll and in isolation.
While Bridges recognizing this hole in his game and wanting to address it is to be applauded, his efforts in doing so have been a mixed bag thus far. The court vision and passing resembles his biggest stride. Bridges’ ability to see the whole floor and make timely skip passes has been an important element in Brooklyn’s offense all year.
However, he often gets into trouble while driving Brooklyn’s offense when he doesn’t get a good screen or there’s a lack of spacing on the floor. He’s yet to tighten his handle enough to the point every time he begins to probe inside, you fear he might turn over the rock.
another TO that leads to transition offense for Detroit, Nets down 13 early: pic.twitter.com/tO5mAAaPFa— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 27, 2023
Tonight offered a prime example of that, as Bridges finished with three turnovers, two of which came on steals by Detroit and lead to seven points at the other end. Bridges also struggled handling the ball in half court sets two games ago vs Denver, giving it up four times. His inconsistent handle hurt him vs Kings earlier this month too, where he had a near-season high five turnovers.
This isn’t a call for Jacque Vaughn to put Bridges in a corner and spot up for looks, but maybe compromise between that and what the team’s asking him to do right now. Feeding him some catch and shoot looks as he runs off screens along the perimeter should be a focus. Brooklyn knows how to generate those, they do it for his twin three or four times a game.
Nets run a staple ATO, rip-veer action for a Cam Johnson three: pic.twitter.com/OrFTcCU8k5— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 27, 2023
They might want to even get Bridges involved as a screener, which the Nets experimented with a bit with two games ago. While it might prove ineffective, it could open up new scoring chances for this offense that’s looking rocky as ever right now. We just don’t know yet.
Bridges is struggling with his shot of late as well. Even after a hot start vs Detroit in their first contest, he started 0-5 from the field tonight. Perhaps having other players work to get him looks rather than asking him to manufacture everything on his own fixes that too.
Free Throw Shooting is Our Next Dilemma
If Brooklyn’s struggling to hit shots at the stripe even with Ben Simmons out of the equation, that’s a problem. With everyone’s favorite free throw shooting liability off the floor tonight, the Nets still shot just 27-43 from the line.
That’s sixteen points left on the cutting board which could’ve turned this Tuesday night stresser into an easy W. It’s also the second time the Nets have shot below 70% on free throws in their past three games. Brooklyn missed eight shots from the stripe last Friday vs the Denver Nuggets. That exceeded the difference in the game with the Nets falling to the champs by five points.
Hitting your freebies is a simple problem with a simple answer — but that’s also what makes it so frustrating. Bridges and Cameron Johnson combined to go 1-6 as Detroit played the foul game with under a minute to go. Thankfully, Detroit was unable to capitalize at the other end and punish the Nets for leaving the door open.
Still, could you imagine how fans would be feeling right now if they had? Any other team there puts Brooklyn in the dog house. They need to shape up their shooting from the line before tougher opponents ride into town.
The Starting Lineup Needs a Tweak
It’s starting to feel like someone’s writing an early deficit and slow shooting start into the script for every Brooklyn Nets game. Tonight, the Nets fell behind the Pistons by a 20-7 score, sinking ugly metrics pertaining to Brooklyn’s starting unit even further.
Dinwiddie + Thomas + Bridges + Johnson + Claxton— Doug Norrie (@DougNorrie) December 24, 2023
Is the worst 5-man lineup in the NBA >100 min
Starting again tonight v. Detroit
It’s not just Brooklyn’s starters struggling that warrants a change to the team’s first five, but the success enjoyed by those coming off the bench. Dorian Finney-Smith continues to have one of the best years of his career. He finished with 11 points tonight, four rebounds, a steal, a block, and a dagger triple.
But while it seems like everyone agrees Finney-Smith deserves more burn, who’s expense it comes at remains a hot topic of discussion. Cam Thomas will be a popular choice after a “bad” game from him tonight. However, this “bad” game from him still included a 7-13 shooting night where he tallied 17 points.
To be fair, Thomas’s defensive deficiencies were abundantly clear, but Spencer Dinwiddie, the other candidate to hit the bench, did not turn in much at a performance at either. Spence finished with nine points while shooting 2-11 from the field. He added six assists, where Thomas only came up with one, but his woeful shot selection outweighed those positives in my opinion.
Brooklyn’s big picture remains something to consider as well. Nobody expects the Nets to compete for a championship this year. While staying competitive remains a goal for this squad, developing their young talent should take precedent. In doing that, minutes would be best served rounding out Thomas’s game with him being just 22 years old and still attached to his rookie contract rather than with Dinwiddie, who’s 30 years old and on an expiring deal.
Still, with so many factors in play, who hits the bench remains something of a toss up, and although I’m leaning on subbing Finney-Smith for Dinwiddie rather than Thomas mainly due to the team’s aforementioned emphasis on a rebuild, I’d support either option. The point is that one way or another, this starting five needs a shake up.