Both Brooklyn Nets vs Atlanta Hawks game reels from this season should come with a “WARNING: May induce crippling motion sickness” label at least somewhere on each of their casings. I’ve watched both contests from start to finish now, and let me just say, I’m already not looking forward to having to take the ferry next time I leave the city.
The Nets and Hawks experienced 43 lead changes tonight, the most by a team in any game since play-by-play tracking became a thing in during the 1996-97 season. It somehow beat out their tick-for tack-contest from two weeks ago, which saw the Hawks win in overtime by a 147-145 tally.
The Nets will hang their hat on this one though, as they walked away with the win this time by a 114-113 final score. Mikal Bridges hit a tough fadeaway jumper to give the Nets a one point lead with about four seconds to play. He and Dennis Smith Jr. collaborated to help force a Trae Young miss at the buzzer the play after to seal a dub.
With the Nets having lost so many this year in heartbreaking fashion, it felt odd seeing the team walk away unscathed this time around. It wasn’t pretty, but alas, a win is a win. Here’s what we learned from it.
Just a Bit of Rust
Fumbling passes, throwing the ball out of bounds, and missing reads on defense — the Nets tonight looked like a team you’re playing with in NBA2K where your controller keeps disconnecting every couple minutes. If you’re like me and still own an XBox One in 2023, you know what I mean.
The Nets finished tonight’s game with 12 turnovers, many of which were unforced. For as great as they both were down the stretch, Spencer Dinwiddie and Mikal Bridges were the culprits behind a number of them.
One specifically painful one came in the second when they failed to connect on a transition pass leading to a “should have been” easy finish. Another came early in the third when Bridges cut baseline and Dinwiddie threw it out to the corner which Mikal had just vacated.
The defense looked equally off pace. No better example of that came than in the first half’s final seconds when the Nets doubled Trae Young beyond the 3-point line. Ice Trae then threw the ball to De’Andre Hunter in the post who got an easy floater as Bridges opted to hedge between him and the wing while Dorian Finney-Smith defended the baseline.
Everyone looked frustrated after the lazy buzzer beater. Bridges even shouted over in Cameron Johnson’s direction. They both stood their after the shot with their arms out looking about as agitated as you’ll see the two best friends get with each other.
Dre beats the buzzer with a floater before halftime pic.twitter.com/8bjnJY9QlU— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 7, 2023
Mistakes happen in any game, but for Brooklyn, they were by the many and all felt a bit off brand. They all contributed to the team looking out of rhythm almost from start to finish. But while it was frustrating to witness, it feels more like a bump in the road rather than a major concern. The Nets just had three days off — their largest stretch between games of the season so far.
The rust was real tonight, but if you ask me, that’s all it was — a bit of rust. Navigating around it to snatch a win is something to celebrate. If the Nets bounce back with a clean one Friday vs the Wizards remember this game if they struggle again out of the All-Star break.
Mikal Bridges Starting a Defensive Turnaround?
You’ll remember Mikal Bridges’ game winner tonight before anything else, but the energy he brought at the other end challenging his opponents’ shots made an equally large impression on me.
Fresh off a three-block game vs the Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Bridges was at it again tonight. He only finished with one rejection, but if you re-watch the contest, you’ll see he got up to contest shots at a higher capacity than usual for a second straight game.
With Bridges reminding everyone why he finished second in defensive player of the year voting two seasons ago, Nic Claxton doing Nic Claxton things, and Dennis Smith Jr. returning to action (more on him later), the Nets might be planting the seeds for a much needed defensive renaissance.
Given their roster, everyone and their mother expected the Nets to make defense their bread and butter this year. While it hasn’t shaken out that way so far, Brooklyn has now played stout defense in each of their past two games.
The Hawks tallied just 113 points tonight, while the Orlando Magic finished with 101 points on Saturday. Both of those are bottom-five scoring performances on the season for each respective team, illustrating some progress for Brooklyn.
The Nets especially locked up in the third quarter tonight, keeping themselves in the game when it looked like Atlanta had plans to carve out something of a cushion. They’ll face further testing out west next week after dueling with the Wizards, but at this point, the defense looks to be turning a corner with Bridges at the helm.
Dennis Smith Jr. is More Valuable Than You Think
This plays off Brooklyn’s aforementioned defensive revival, but I wanted to give Dennis Smith Jr. his own takeaway after that gutsy performance at the defensive end. The savage himself played his third most minutes in a game all season. They were all spent relentlessly hounding Trae Young and whoever else dared to pick up the ball in front of him.
While other defenders, often including Bridges, helped out at the point of attack tonight, Smith Jr. played a significant role in limiting Young to an 11-of-24 night from the field with five turnovers. The pressure he created often led to transition points for Brooklyn as well.
He didn’t discriminate at the guard position either though, getting in Dejounte Murray’s grill all the same. Dejounte finished with a subpar night from the field too, going 6-of-16 on field goals and 1-of-5 from deep to add only 13 points.
An awesome Dennis Smith Jr. sequence almost leads to a Day'Ron Sharpe poster: pic.twitter.com/eYzsL3DCRT— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 7, 2023
Bridges called Smith Jr. the team’s “vocal leader” after the game, which raises an eye brow (in a good way), when you consider the fact that he only joined the team this summer. Lonnie Walker IV reiterated that a few games back as well, mentioning how Smith Jr. motivates him and his teammates to pick it up at the defensive end.
Jacque Vaughn also opted to roll with Smith Jr. for the team’s final defensive possession. Although Smith has established himself as one of the game’s better perimeter defenders, it still seemed like a bold move given his inexperience on the team.
Both these instances show that Smith Jr.’s proven himself as a highly valued role player on this team. While I’m hesitant to put him on Dorian Finney-Smith’s level (who shot the lights out yet again tonight,) he’s certainly on par with the likes of Royce O’Neale and Walker IV.
Given his history as a guy who’s bounced around since joining the NBA, many questioned it when the Nets made him a priority to sign this offseason right now. He and the Nets have now delivered with answers.