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Brooklyn Nets freeze up, lose to Oklahoma City Thunder 124-108

It was a freezing cold New Year’s Eve for the Nets, who did everything else right but couldn’t make a shot during an aggravating loss in OKC.

Brooklyn Nets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

2023 was a year of upheaval for the Brooklyn Nets. It started with some of the best regular-season play in franchise history, a stretch that came to an abrupt, bitter end after a Kevin Durant injury and, well, you know the rest.

Brooklyn’s new path is hardly smoother, even if expectations in the short-term have been lowered. The changing tide is no longer enough to lift all boats, not when the Nets are losing. And, as we close the door on 2023, they are losing.

A 2-7 record in their last nine games has been more painful than 2-7 normally is, given that it immediately torpedoed Brooklyn back down to two games below .500 after a successful stretch of play, and that the only two wins came over the undisputed worst team in the league. Not to mention a loss so ugly the NBA might literally fine the Nets for it, which is somehow separate from an L to the Washington Wizards.

Point being, Brooklyn had one last chance to end the year — and a tumultuous week — on a happy note, a New Year’s Eve date with the Oklahoma City Thunder. At 21-9 and fresh off a monstrous win over the Denver Nuggets, the Thunder have become the envy of the league with its fourth-best record to date, as well as its youngest roster.

But on Sunday, the Nets did not bow down to their youthful superiors. Brooklyn came out with the energy we expected in their last game, defending, rebounding, and out-hustling the Thunder for much of the night. They just couldn’t make a shot to save their lives. As nice as it may have been to see the Nets play well once again, it was a chore to sit through miss after miss.

Final Score: Oklahoma City Thunder 124, Brooklyn Nets 108.

Perhaps the Nets really needed a motivational butt-kicking, rather than a day of load management, to come out firing. On Sunday evening, they landed the first punch against OKC while playing better basketball for 12 minutes than they had for even a couple against Washington.

Jacque Vaughn elected to switch everything on defense, the first time Brooklyn has opened a game with that strategy this season, and it contributed to looking like the more active team on both ends. The Thunder even shot 60% from the floor, but they also turned it over five times, leading to seven points for Brooklyn.

“I love continuing to challenge our group,” said JV. “You saw we had multiple coverages tonight. A team like this, you can’t give them the same look.”

The Nets’ offense faced no such challenges. A starting group that now includes Dorian Finney-Smith shook off any rust to move the ball quickly and effectively. The main beneficiary was Mikal Bridges, who sprinted out to 15 first-quarter points:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was not to be outdone, scoring 13 of his own to cut a 10-point Brooklyn lead to a 36-33 score at quarter’s end.

The two teams would see-saw throughout the second quarter, as the Nets leaned on Cam Thomas to score the rock. After Friday’s loss in Washington, Thomas said he wasn’t thrilled about moving to the bench, of course, “so I just got to accept it and excel in whatever role I’m in.”

In Sunday’s first half he excelled, posting 16 points including three catch-and-shoot triples, playing off his fellow bench guard Dennis Smith Jr. frequently:

Those two continued to cover for each other’s sins, with DSJ providing some much-needed rebounding, defense, and passing. When he subbed out, the Thunder quickly went on a 6-0 run to take a 45-44 lead, as the Spencer Dinwiddie-Thomas backcourt produced, once again, subpar results.

Brooklyn couldn’t re-gain their lead, although both teams cooled off from the field and trudged toward the break with OKC leading 59-56.

Despite the three-point deficit, their effort did not wane to open the third quarter. The Nets, for the first time in what feels like weeks, were consistently more physical, disciplined, and intimidating than their opponent. Brooklyn just couldn’t make shots, and their bricks built OKC a lead after halftime. The Thunder rebounded misses and raced out to stack transition opportunities, which led to 16 fast-break points on the night for the home team.

Said Vaughn in postgame: “Probably the only thing we kind of fought each other all night was the transition and knowing, coming into this game that they’re elite at getting downhill and getting transition. So a couple of those timeouts I had to burn was to address that.”

Two fast-break buckets in a row created OKC’s first true separation of the night in the third quarter, a 78-67 lead that the Nets never recovered from. They closest they’d cut it to was six points, with Dennis Smith Jr. checking into the game to provide energy and defense. But those weren’t the Nets’ problems.

Bridges finished with 22 points after a 17-point first half. Thomas checked back into the game with just under four minutes to go in the third quarter, but didn’t make a shot until garbage time, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-18 after his strong start. The team-wide offensive ineptitude didn’t just lie with the leading scorers, though.

The Nets shot 6-of-10 from deep in the first quarter. They shot 6-of-36 afterwards. Another poor night from the stripe too, at just 64.5%. Brooklyn’s 17-to-5 advantage on the offensive glass didn’t matter, neither did a +7 turnover margin. The Nets took 17 more field-goals attempts than the Thunder and 11 more free-throws. They dominated, until it was time to shoot the rock.

Said Vaughn: “You just look at the stat-sheet, and we did some really good things tonight. The ball just didn’t go in for ‘em. We had 20 corner-threes, we made two of them. We missed some free throws.”

OKC took an 89-79 lead into the fourth quarter, where stud sophomore Jalen Williams put the game away. With SGA on the bench, Williams nailed jumper after jumper on his way to 17 timely points, though it was the least of any Thunder starter. Chet Holmgren continued his rookie of the year campaign with a 18 and 10 double-double. Lu Dort and Josh Giddey each made four triples, really signaling it wouldn’t be Brooklyn’s night.

The Nets had impressive moments, sure. Cam Johnson finished with just 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, but that included some nice takes to the rim. Nic Claxton outplayed Holmgren, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, by posting 15/16/5/1/1 and this gorgeous coast-to-coast take, but it was too little too late:

He led a defense that, when in the half court, handled the NBA’s #6 offense admirably, despite OKC shooting an absurd 18-of-33 deep. Even that gargantuan shooting discrepancy wasn’t enough to create a blowout, as the Nets were just a couple swishes away the whole second half. They never came.

Vaughn let the starters — with Thomas over Finney-Smith, in search of offense — run a little longer than you’d expect, finally making wholesale substitutions with under two minutes left, facing a 17-point deficit. Brooklyn’s head coach cited a lack of practice time throughout the season for the decision, but perhaps it was just too painful to pull the plug on a night where his team played so well.

The Nets aced the little things on Sunday night. They often looked like the best version of themselves, from ball movement on one end to communication on the other. For the first time in weeks, the Brooklyn earned a win over a good team.

But the Nets couldn’t drop the ball in the ocean, and missed out on that win. When it rains, it pours.

Milestone Watch

The final milestones of 2023, and they’re heavy on Clax.

  • Claxton recorded his 9th double-double of the season, not only a a team-high but his third straight. And he didn’t scrape by either, with 16 rebounds matching a career-high.
  • Claxton tied the best rebounding month of his career with such a performance, finishing December with 10.2 boards a game, which he matched in January 2023.
  • In addition to 22 points, Mikal Bridges finished with seven rebounds and seven assists. It marked is Bridges’ seventh 20/5/5 game this season, already establishing a single-season career-high for such games.

Next Up

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Brooklyn travels to the Crescent City, where they’ll take on the New Orleans Pelicans as the first challenge of 2024. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday night.