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Brooklyn Nets narrowly survive Atlanta Hawks with thrilling 114-113 win

The Nets and Hawks gave a new meaning to ‘back-and-forth’ on Wednesday night, and it was Brooklyn that came out victorious. Just barely.

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets added two games to their schedule after barely missing out on the knockout round of the In-Season Tournament, and the first was against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. Not exactly an auspicious matchup. Forget the last time Brooklyn visited Atlanta, where a 45-point effort from Mikal Bridges went to waste in a brutal 147-145 overtime loss, the time before was equally as painful: Trae Young hit a game-winning buzzer-beater, sending Brooklyn home with a 129-127 loss in February of last season.

All in all, State Farm Arena has been a house of horrors for the Nets, and even more so for the Twins. Bridges and Cam Johnson, whether as Phoenix Suns or in their new home, have never won in Atlanta.

Dorian Finney-Smith wasn’t bothered by that bit of history, saying, “We gotta get a win for them, man...I don’t know why [they] ain’t never won here, but tonight we’re going to change that, so that’s all that matters.”

To do so would also mean creating more separation from the Hawks in the standings; the Nets entered at 10-9, the Hawks at 9-10. Bridges and Johnson didn’t just enter with personal vendettas, but on a quest for a solid win, even a statement win against an Eastern Conference neighbor.

What a quest it was. It even exceeded the wild standards that these two teams have set, possibly the closest game in NBA history. Seriously. The game featured 43 lead changes, the most in any NBA game since play-by-play tracking began in 1996. And that stat sounded a whole lot more fun when it ended in a Nets win.

Final score: Brooklyn 114, Atlanta 113.

Cam Thomas received his ninth start of the season, but by far his most noteworthy one. Despite a healthy Johnson, with Finney-Smith back after a one-game absence, Brooklyn eschewed their typical starting five: Finney-Smith was relegated to the bench for Thomas.

The young scorer did not respond with a barrage of buckets, but rather his worst stretch of the season in the first half, going scoreless on 0-5 shooting with three turnovers. The Hawks showed respect by trapping him on ball-screens, but their defensive activity overwhelmed Thomas, rather than leading to 4-on-3 opportunities for Brooklyn.

Head Coach Jacque Vaughn kept it in perspective “I said to him on the bench, ‘This is great, this is growing for you also. Can you imagine this, that a team is double teaming you and you have to adjust to it?’...And he realizes that.”

Thus, Brooklyn relied on The Twins, who did not waste their opportunity for revenge against Atlanta. Johnson came out of the gates firing, leading his team with 15 first-half points on 6-12 shooting, including some tough buckets:

Bridges wasn’t too far behind with nine points, but he added four rebounds, four assists, and a block; his impact was felt all over the court in the first half. Coming off not only a 42-point outburst, but his best defensive game of the season against the Orlando Magic, Bridges started the night guarding Trae Young. When Young hit the bench, Bridges pivoted to guarding Dejounte Murray, but his effort didn’t wane:

“It was a collective effort across the board,” said Vaughn of his team’s defense. “It’s the third-ranked offensive team in the league...I give our guys a lot of credit. It started with Mikal taking on that assignment, and then the support behind him.”

A see-saw start to the night reminded fans of Brooklyn’s previous high-scoring misadventures in Atlanta, but the game quickly took on a different tone. The Hawks did not make a first-half 3-pointer after the 5:50 mark of the first quarter. Brooklyn’s offense, meanwhile, nearly flatlined after Bridges and Johnson went to the bench.

They trailed by a modest 33-31 after a quarter of play, but took the lead right back on the opening possession of the second quarter:

From there, bench units for the Nets and Hawks traded a whole lot of bricks mixed in with some turnovers. The lead changed hands a few times, but the Nets were playing at a higher level — Finney-Smith hit a couple threes, as he and Dennis Smith Jr. were Brooklyn’s most valuable reserves. The latter put up 8/3/2 in his first-half minutes, adding strong defense and pressure on the paint:

Bridges said Smith Jr. was simply “locked in today, putting dudes in a box.”

His efforts weren’t enough to give Brooklyn a halftime lead, though. Atlanta went up 56-53, led by an even scoring attack. Young and Murray each had 11 points, while Saddiq Bey added ten.

In the third quarter, the lead changes continued, as Mikal Bridges started to pour on the points. He scored 13 in the period, mixing in off-ball scoring, isolation hoops, long-range accuracy, and finishing at the rim:

Johnson said Bridges is playing as confidently as he’s seen throughout their careers: “Yeah, it’s a process, and it builds. He keeps a positive mindset about can see his development.”

To keep the pace, Atlanta finally hit some threes. Noted Nets-killer Bogdan Bogdanović got hot and finished with 20 points on the night, but Brooklyn’s defense kept the water from boiling. Trae Young’s 30 points and nine assists leap off the stat-sheet, but he didn’t get to the free-throw line after the first quarter, and he turned it over five times. Those turnovers frequently sprang Brooklyn into transition, where they scored 17 points:

Spencer Dinwiddie and Thomas struggled mightily, ultimately combining for just 19 points on a putrid 8-of-29 shooting. Yet, Dennis Smith Jr. provided just enough offense from the guard position with 13 points and four assists, and the team’s defense kept them afloat.

“One person you gotta give a huge amount of credit to, throughout the whole game, was Dennis...He changed the game, [his] energy, he got same dawg in him, and he brings that to the table every day,” said Johnson.

It all added up to an 82-81 Hawks lead entering the fourth quarter, which would prove to be just as back-and-forth as the first three.

There, Thomas dropped in consecutive jumpers to salvage his night, but soon headed to the bench for Dorian Finney-Smith. Day’Ron Sharpe nearly recorded another double-double with eight points, ten boards, and two blocks off the bench, providing strong relief for Nic Claxton (4/10/4 with a block), who'd close the game out.

That left Jacque Vaughn with his most-used starting five down the stretch. It also set the stage for Spencer Dinwiddie to redeem himself, as he finally picked up his scoring in the fourth.

Vaughn called Dinwiddie “a guy who is determined to win, who will show up every day wanting to win. Like you said, he didn’t have the greatest start and middle of the game...[but] I totally have faith in him.”

Dinwiddie scored 11 of his 13 points in the fourth, featuring this sequence that seemed destined to notch a Nets win:

It should have been 12-of-14, though. Up by one with seconds remaining, Dinwiddie headed to the line, where he split a pair to put Brooklyn up by only two. The Hawks had a real crack at sending it to overtime, and Trae Young — who else? — stepped up to bat. He attacked Dennis Smith Jr., who had defended admirably all night, but you can’t win ‘em all. Young stepped back into a go-ahead 3-pointer. Was Brooklyn headed for another devastating loss in A-Town?

We hardly had time to ponder that question, thanks to Mikal Bridges. Vaughn didn’t call a timeout, allowing his burgeoning star to match Young shot-for-shot. He did. The whole sequence was classic Nets-Hawks:

Here’s how Vaughn explained his decision to let ‘em play: “I didn’t want [Atlanta] to set their defense, and I didn’t want them to get their best defensive lineup in the game. And so I put the ball in the hands of Mikal, who I trust. He got to a spot, and we can live with the results.”

So, we got to do it all over again. Just a fortnight earlier in Atlanta, Young drew a foul, down one, at the end of regulation. He then tied the game at the line to send it to overtime. On Wednesday?

A no-call against Dennis Smith Jr., and a flailing floater that was far too close for comfort. But it rimmed out. Nets win:

If this game felt even more ridiculous than Brooklyn-Atlanta bouts of the past, it was! Per YES Network, this contest featured forty-three lead changes, the most in any NBA game since play-by-play tracking began in 1996.

Mikal Bridges finished with 32/5/6 on 12-of-19 shooting, the biggest of which was the game-winning, isolation bucket. Hard to imagine a more star-laden bucket than that. Cam Johnson was Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer on the night with 17 points, six boards, and three assists. The Nets, coming off two brutal losses in Atlanta, were led by the two players with the most to fight for. And fight they did.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “Really, I told them ‘We’re gonna get this one.’ I can literally remember saying to myself, ‘We’re gonna get this one.’ And so that feels good, that I believed in our group, that somehow we were going to figure it out...It is the epitome of a team win right there.”

Milestone Watch

A crazy game deserves some crazy milestones, and we got ‘em.

  • As mentioned, Elias Sports Bureau confirmed after the game that 43 lead changes is the most in recorded NBA history — since 1996. Brooklyn and Atlanta broke the previous record of just 40, set in a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers in 2014. (You may remember the previous record before that, set in a double-OT thriller between the Nets and Phoenix Suns in 2006 — Kidd vs. Nash at the Meadowlands.)
  • It isn’t the first tight affair between Brooklyn and Atlanta. Their last seven games have been decided by single-digits. Each of the last four games have been decided by a single possession.
  • Mikal Bridges reached 30-plus points for the second straight game, and the third straight against Atlanta. It was his fourth 30-piece of the season, and he also notched Brooklyn’s first four-point play of the season. Hm.
  • Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe each grabbed double-digit rebounds for the second time this season.
  • Dorian Finney-Smith is now shooting 45.6% on the season from deep after going 3-6 on Wednesday. And he’s doing it on volume too, having reached 50 total 3-pointers faster than in any other season of his career (19 games).
  • Mikal Bridges is now the league leader in clutch field goals this season with 21. He’s also second in percentage of clutch points made (defined as the final five minutes of games within five points), hitting 55.3%, behind only LeBron James at 65.5%, per Erik Slater.

Vince Carter Returns

Sarah Kustok made it official mid-game, announcing that Vince Carter will join the YES Network broadcast crew on Friday vs. the Wizards. It will be the first of 10 Nets games the NBA great will call this season.

Next Up

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The second game added to the Brooklyn Nets’ calendar is a bit friendlier, at least on paper. They'll face the Washington Wizards at the Barclays Center before embarking on a daunting West Coast swing. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday night.