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Brooklyn Nets C-team puts up fight in punt game against Milwaukee Bucks, lose 144-122

The Bucks overpowered a tag-team of Nets on Wednesday night after a closer-than-expected three-and-a-half quarters.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Anything less than a sweep of a home-and-home set with the Detroit Pistons would have set off major fire alarms in Brooklyn. But the Nets got the job done, not only capitalizing on a golden opportunity to get back to .500, but avoiding the shame of losing to the team now riding the longest losing streak of all time.

Better yet, the Nets stacked some valuable W’s right before facing the Milwaukee Bucks at home on the second night of a cross-city back-to-back. The Bucks, who had been chilling in the Big Apple for a week after consecutive dates with the New York Knicks, were ready and waiting for the Nets at the Barclays Center on Wednesday night.

So the Nets, in the midst of six games in nine days, chose to punt this one. The only starters who played on Wednesday night were Cam Thomas and Mikal Bridges (#Streak), and neither checked in after the first quarter. Neither did Royce O’Neale, though he at least logged minutes, unlike Dorian Finney-Smith, who was ruled out with left knee soreness.

Like any good punt, this one hung in the air for a quite a while, and was even fun at times. Brooklyn’s reserves took layups and dunks from Milwaukee’s porous paint defense like candy from a baby, a holiday-season treat for a team of backups light on shooting. The Bucks’ offense was characteristically unstoppable, but Brooklyn played hard throughout, keeping it close until midway through the fourth quarter.

If you don't believe in moral victories, how about some fun to assuage the pain of a 22-point loss? We saw the first real burn for Brooklyn’s trio of rookies, two of whom impressed, and a high-flying brand of basketball that forced Milwaukee to play their starters close to the final buzzer. Does that count for anything?

Maybe, maybe not. The Nets lost to drop their record back under .500, with at least a cursory call from the league office in the works.

Final Score: Milwaukee Bucks 144, Brooklyn Nets 122.

It was a minor miracle that the Nets only trailed Milwaukee 66-59 at the halftime break. Not only did the home team rest their big dawgs in Bridges, Thomas, O’Neale, and even Day’Ron Sharpe in the second quarter, but they didn’t even shoot the ball from the outside. The Nets made one lowly 3-pointer in 13 tries compared to Milwaukee 11-of-25 mark.

It wasn’t as if Milwaukee decided to play down to the competition either. Giannis Antetokounmpo consistently attacked the paint, as he does, drawing fouls aplenty on his way to 12 points and eight free-throw attempts by the break. Damian Lillard was quiet outside of two 3-pointers, but Khris Middleton continued his run of solid play to shoot 7-of-10 for a game-high 15 points.

Yet, while Milwaukee’s stars rained down free-throws and jumpers, Brooklyn’s motley crew of reserves and two-way players got busy in the paint and on the glass. They outscored the Bucks in the paint by an incomprehensible 40-to-16, taking advantage of suspect-at-best interior defense.

Rookie Jalen Wilson was at the forefront of that bruising attack, flying around to grab offensive rebounds and run in transition. His efforts, which we’ve already seen in spot minutes this season, led to a career-high in just one half of play, as he poured in 14 points including 8-of-8 at the line:

Jalen Wilson said it is “fun being able to play the game that I love so much and having a chance to go out and compete, especially playing against a good team like Milwaukee.”

No other Net reached double-figures, but nearly everybody who touched the floor pressed the issue. Thomas and Bridges played the whole first quarter to combine for 14 points before their nights were done, at which point the understudies picked up the slack.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “At the end of the night. I didn’t want [the starters], you know, touching 40 minutes again. So that’s really what it boiled down to.”

But the understudies largely delivered. Dennis Smith Jr., who got his first start as a Net, was all over the place in the second quarter, consistently pressuring the paint to either drop dimes or finish with authority:

That’d be the theme of the night for Brooklyn, who dunked the ball more than in any other game this season. Whether it was DSJ rising up over Brook Lopez multiple times, Day’Ron Sharpe finishing plays, or even Noah Clowney, registering his first career bucket with a slam...

...they played above the rim all night long, even after the halftime break.

Wilson credited the barrage of paint-points to “not falling in love with the three and taking contested shots. When the ball got moving and we got to cutting and driving to the paint, we saw a lot of lanes open up, and I think we just took advantage of that.”

See, the Bucks may have underestimated their opponent in the first half, but who’s to blame them, really? Certainly, Milwaukee would come out in the second half and stop playing with their food, showing the various G-Leaguers and rookies in black-and-white who’s boss.

Not quite. Dennis Smith Jr. and Day’Ron Sharpe were the only Brooklyn regulars to see minutes after the first quarter, and they elevated their games accordingly. Now in featured roles, they took it upon themselves to puncture a flimsy Bucks defense. Smith Jr. would finish with 14/7/8, shooting a wobbly 7-of-17 but making up for it by distributing some high-quality dimes. Just ask Sharpe, who posted 12 points on a clean 5-of-6 shooting including a corner three, as all but one of his buckets were assisted by DSJ:

Keon Johnson, Brooklyn’s final two-way player who signed on in November, hit a 3-pointer to give the Nets a 79-78 lead halfway through the 3rd quarter. Johnson would finish with 12 points, and of course, a highlight dunk, and was ever the example of what gave short-handed Brooklyn a fighting chance against an Eastern Conference power.

Here they were, essentially punting a game, yet locked into a back-and-forth battle in the second half thanks to the efforts of guys like Johnson. Even Trendon Watford, who had recently fallen out of Brooklyn’s standard rotation thanks to Smith Jr.’s return, dropped 17 points, many of which came on second-half drives to the rim. Brooklyn may have been overmatched on paper, but certainly not on the court.

That is, until the fourth quarter rolled around. Smith Jr. and Sharpe headed to the bench with Brooklyn down 100-92, and they’d stay there for the night. Meanwhile. Brooklyn’s tag-team of rookies, two-way players, and Harry Giles III couldn’t overcome a Milwaukee team that never stopped scoring.

The Bucks won the fourth quarter 44-30, providing some of the garbage time we thought may take up the whole night. In the end, the 3-point differential was too great to overcome, with the visitors draining 23 threes to Brooklyn’s seven. Bobby Portis, MarJon Beauchamp, and Cameron Payne combined to shoot 8-of-14 from beyond off Milwaukee’s bench, a repeat performance of their visit to Barclays in early November.

“They did make some high-quad threes that we kind of took a little educated risk [on], but you had guys like Cameron Payne to come through and make shots for them,” said Vaughn.

Malik Beasley hit five triples, Dame and Middleton hit three, and Antetokounmpo used all that spacing around him to dunk in a casual 32/10/8 line:

It took a little longer than expected thanks to Brooklyn’s well-rounded paint attack which produced seven double-digit scorers, but the final result was unsurprising. The Nets could not stop one of the league’s best offenses, and playing a feisty brand of basketball without much long-range shooting was only good enough to make things interesting, not quite pull off an improbable victory.

Said Vaughn: “You know, it’s an ultimate test. You play a good team like that, and you get the chance to defend and execute on the opposite end the floor. Great for our young guys.”

Noah Clowney poured in 14 points in his first real stretch of NBA action, and said he came away with some valuable takeaways despite the loss: “Just knowing I can compete at this level. As a team, I think a lot of the guys young guys — they got to play today. I think we all feel comfortable with how we play, obviously we lost, but I think we learned from it.”

If you tune in to the NBA regular-season for pure entertainment, Wednesday night’s game was no great disappointment. The Nets considered the obstacles in front of them and responded pragmatically; in turn, we got an entertaining performance out of a litany of fresh faces.

If you tune in to the NBA regular-season to see wins, well ... At least there’s always another game around the corner.

Mikal Bridges, Jacque Vaughn Discuss Rest

The Nets did not defy NBA conventions by sitting four rotation players, seven if you count the guys that didn’t touch the court after the first quarter. Teams choose to ride the backups on certain nights of the 82-game calendar all the time. Remember Brooklyn’s exhilarating victory over the Indiana Pacers last year?

And the Nets are in the middle of a tough streak. Wednesday night was their fifth game in seven days and they have six more in the next 10 — including a four games in six nights road trip — before they jet off to Paris on January 8 for a game three days later. Moreover, the injury and illness bug has hit them fairly hard. Before the game, Jacque Vaughn revealed that some players “didn’t reveal they were dealing with sicknesses” on the West Coast trip.

He also said it was an “executive” decision.

Still. though, Wednesday night was sure to set off some discourse about the state of load management in the NBA, and that it did. Mikal Bridges was asked postgame about Brooklyn’s blatant strategy, and according to the NY Post’s Zach Braziller, he was unsurprising not in favor of it:

When asked about Jacque Vaughn’s comment that Bridges wouldn’t rest because of his consecutive game streak now at 423 games, Bridges went further. “I guess for their purposes is why. But I’m healthy, so I [don’t] see why I wouldn’t play.”

“The streak is, I guess, for everyone else to talk about. But I don’t just get in there for the streak,” Bridges said. “I get in there to play the game and because I want to go out there and win. I don’t go in there to just sub in, get the streak and whatever. I just want to play.”

Zach Braziller of the Post asked Vaughn was about the Nets decision to treat Wednesday’s game as an “exhibition.” Vaughn emphatically rejected the premise of the question, giving a long answer that may or may not satisfy Nets fans depending on their point of view:

Here’s the great thing about this game: These dudes that play — 450 of them — they’re special. And it’s pretty special to be an NBA player, and I treat them such. I don’t agree with garbage time, I’ve said that to our group. At the end of the game, you continue to play, you compete, that’s what you do for a living. This is what I do for a living. I’m not sure I sat down tonight. I coached from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. That’s what you sign up for.

I have too much respect for the dudes that suit up and put their body on the line and the competition level to even mention the word exhibition. Any guy could have ended their career tonight. By one play. And so I treat it as such. It is a honor it is a — I don’t know — a sense of gratitude that you do this for a living, and you never ever underestimate that. If you do, you’ll pay for it. So that was my approach tonight. I coached these dudes as hard as I could tonight because they deserved it. And each dude that stepped on the floor, they deserved to be coached and they deserved to be on the floor tonight.

Either way, the Nets will have big-time pressure on them to defeat a lowly Washington Wizards team next time out. That’s what the rest is for, right?

There’s a larger issue as well. Players and coaches will disagree, but when a disagreement like last night becomes public, there has to be a question: does it signal greater frustration on a number of issues?

Milestone Watch

More milestones than usual for a 22-point loss, thanks to all the Nets youngins that got major run for the first time in Brooklyn.

  • Let’s start with Jalen Wilson. His 21 points and 10 boards constitute the first 20/10 game by a Nets rookie since Mason Plumlee (22 points, 13 rebounds) on 2/9/14 vs. New Orleans.
  • His sparkling 11-of-11 performance at the line was good for the most free-throw makes by any rookie in the NBA this season. Wilson became the first rookie in franchise history to make 10+ free throws in a game since Brook Lopez did in January of 2009.
  • Day’Ron Sharpe made his ninth career 3-pointer (first of the season) of his way to his fourth straight double-digit scoring performance, a new career-high.
  • Trendon Watford’s 17 points were good for a season-high.
  • Dariq Whitehead hit a floater, his only bucket of the game but his first made field goal in the NBA.

Next Up

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets hit the road for the first of four games away from the Barclays Center, where they’ll take on the Washington Wizards on Friday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. from Capital One Arena.