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Oof. Nets lose on Trae Young game-winning shot to Hawks, 129-127

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official. The Nets are 1-4 since trading away Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

After falling behind by as many as 18 points, the Nets battled back to tie things up before eventually losing after Trae Young hit a game-winning shot, 129-127. With the loss, the Nets have dropped down to a tie for 5th in the Eastern Conference standings with the crosstown rival New York Knicks. For those that are keeping track: yes, both of New York’s professional basketball teams are set to face off on Wednesday in what could be a monumental game for deciding playoff seeding.

“I think we solved some problems, we got a few answers tonight. We’ll continue to get more answers as we go forward. I thought we were more physical and aggressive in our defensive stance and how we put our hands on people,” said Jacque Vaughn. “We were just more aggressive at the end of the day and that allowed us to get some stops and get out in transition in and get some really good looks from the field. But it all started with our defensive stance.”

Cam Johnson led the charge for the Nets with 27 points, the third-highest-scoring performance of his career. This was also the first time that Johnson broke 20 points as a Net. CJ is now averaging 14.2 points as a Brooklyn Net.

Mikal Bridges also had another solid showing with 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting. He was also tenacious on the defensive end and recorded two steals and two blocks. “Brooklyn Bridges” is now averaging 22.4 as a Brooklyn Net.

Otherwise, Cam Thomas filled it up off the bench with 22 points, 11 of which came in the second quarter. Though he wasn’t totally efficient, 6-of-14 from the field, he did get to the line repeatedly and went a perfect 9-for-9. He’s now shooting 89.3% at the stripe.

Trae Young led all scorers with 34 points on 12-of-26 shooting to go with eights assists, and mostly importantly, the game-winning shot. His backcourt partner, Dejounte Murry, also had 28 points on multiple shots, going 12-of-21 from the field and 4-of-7 from three. Bogdan Bogdanovic filled in 22 points off the bench for the Hawks, as well.

After starting just 1-for-9 to begin the game, the Nets made 13 of their next 30 three-pointers to shoot a solid 35.9% from the line. Unfortunately, Atlanta seemingly could not miss from deep, going 16-of-30 from behind the arc for a blistering 53.3%. The Hawks as a team have shot just 35.3% from three on the season, 21st in the league, so this was a bit of an outlier performance.

Initially, it looked as if the Nets had the right type of energy to avenge Friday’s embarrassing 44-point loss. For the first couple of minutes of the first quarter, the Nets switched fluidly and coerced Atlanta into a series of awkward isolations to no avail. Brooklyn’s offense, however, remained in the mud, going just 1-of-11 from three on mostly open attempts. Those missed shots gave Atlanta the opportunity to put points on the board, up 37-29.

The Hawks kept the momentum going in the second quarter. Bogdan Bogdanovic got going from three after Royce O’Neale helped off to triple-team (??) Onyeka Okongwu. Bogdanovic promptly responded to the disrespect with 4 three-pointers in the quarter, and Atlanta began the second quarter on a 13-3 run. Thomas quieted that run with 11 points in the period to cut the Hawks’ advantage down from 17 points to 7. Atlanta finished the half ahead, 64-57.

Brooklyn finally found its rhythm from three with two made three-pointers to start the third quarter from Cam Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie. After Dorian Finney-Smith tipped in a layup on the fastbreak, the Nets took their first lead, 72-71, at the 8:17 mark in the quarter. Things were fairly back-and-forth, with Trae Young hitting a pair of layups and Bridges getting going in the midrange, until the end of the quarter. Royce O’Neale hit three-straight threes in the final three minutes of play, yet Atlanta finished ahead once more, 97-94.

Dinwiddie finally found an offensive rhythm in the fourth—first on a stepback shot, then on a HUGE poster dunk over Okongwu. Atlanta returned with some truly tough shots: a pull-up three from Saddiq Bey that was well contested by Thomas, and then Bogdanovic hit a stepback two-pointer with the shot-clock expiring and then a pick-and-pop three at the left wing after ghosting the screen. It was Brooklyn’s turn to punch back; first, Dinwiddie hit a stepback three on a switch with Okongwu, and then Cam Johnson hit a running three in transition to make things a three-point game with just over 3 minutes to spare.

“It’s great to see our end-of-game execution,” said Vaughn. “We kind of held on to our timeouts a little bit. We trapped and forced them into our early shots. We got offensive rebounds. We were able to do some offensive/defensive substitution at the end, which was good. So that was something that was good to see our group have a little bit of poise at the end, make some shots during that stretch, and really be on the same page during that stretch.”

Atlanta’s star power began to take over in the final minutes of play. Murray hit a huge pull-up three-pointer, Young hit a tough floater with his body drifting away from the rim, and Murray hit another tough jumper inside the three-point line. At the 1:17 mark in the fourth, the Hawks were up 127-119. But then Atlanta collapsed. Dinwiddie got himself another dunk, Finney-Smith hit a huge three in transition, and Cam Johnson hit a corner three when Bogdanovic bizarrely helped over to stop a layup from Finney-Smith with his Hawks up three. Somehow, someway, the Nets tied things up with just 7 seconds to spare.

Then, it happened.

“I was just gotta stay disciplined,” said Mikal Bridges about defending Young’s game-winner. “I left my feet but just gotta stay disciplined.”

Trae Young hit the game-winning shot to give his Hawks their 31st victory of the season. Sigh.

The Film Room

The Nets entered Sunday’s matinee game ranked dead-last in defense since Durant and Irving were dealt to the great Southwest. If that sounds surprising, it should. Through deadline dealings, the Nets have retrofitted their roster with a cadre of good-to-great defenders in Bridges, Johnson, Finney-Smith, and Dinwiddie alongside staunch defenders like Nic Claxton.

And yet, for the third time in four games, the Nets allowed at least 120 points. Not good.

The Nets are holding their own in isolation. That’s not the problem. Bridges, Claxton, etc. can all hold their own on an island.

It’s the team defense that has been an utter atrocity. Simple pick-and-rolls have stymied the Nets. Normally, the Nets automatically switch any on-ball screening actions. Here, newcomers Johnson and Bridges are late on this switch and John Collins rockets toward the rim free for the highlight slam.

“Not to make any excuses, but for four years I’ve had a coaching staff who was very adamant on certain defensive principles. And after day after day after day of working on them, they get ingrained in your head. So some of the principles we have here in Brooklyn are the almost complete opposite,” said Johnson after the game. “Once we kind of iron out those instances where you’re reacting a quarter of a second later, I think our defense will be a lot sharper. There’s a couple of rotations that I know personally over the last five games that I’ve missed just because I’m caught in a middle ground where my mind is reverting back to old habits.”

The same can be said about pick-and-pops. Here, De’Andre Hunter “ghosts” and slips out of his screen for the pick-and-pop three, and Royce O’Neale pauses for a second, unsure if he’s supposed to switch with Bridges or stay true to his matchup.

Even the angles that the Nets took on closeouts were odd. Thomas begins by completely overplaying this dribble-handoff between Saddiq Bey and Jalen Johnson and is promptly rewarded with a three, and then later Finney-Smith tries to shoot the gap and cheat around a screen but allows a three-pointer to Hawks’ best long-range specialist.

“I think our guys are getting used to—we talked about the offensive terminology—there’s a defensive terminology also. And when you’ve been raised in a system like the two kids (Bridges and Johnson) from Phoenix, they’ve been raised in that system. That’s all they know. So the terminology is different. My communication is different with them. What we’re trying to accomplish is different. And it just didn’t happen in five games like that,” said Vaughn after the game.

“The other two (Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith) are coming from a different organization too where some of their switches were different than ours, the way we do them. The ability to keep it up front, why we do it. So it’s still explaining the ‘why’ to our guys right now. And I think it’s going to click.”

Post-game, both Bridges and Dinwiddie talked about the last shot ... and their regrets.

“I’ve just got to stay disciplined. I jumped, left my feet. But I’ve just got to stay disciplined,” Bridges said.

“Oh man, honestly I thought I had it,” Dinwiddie said. “The only thing about it is you don’t want to be too aggressive and get called from a foul, because you definitely lose. Bang-bang, clock is running down. I thought Mikal had him at first. He had great defense on the first couple of moves. The pump-fake kind of [shook] Mikal, that’s why I peeled off of [Bogdan Bogdanovic] feeling like there wasn’t enough time to get the pass off and for him to fire it.

“I thought I was going to block it. You’re going to swipe a little more tentatively because .5 on the clock, if you foul him and give him two free throws, he only had to make one. It’s Trae Young, and he’s going to make the free throws. … You’re not mad at the shot and Mikal played great defense. Trae Young’s a helluva player. You’d rather not be in that position.”

And Dinwiddie told a bit of truth as well on superstar calls, whether they benefit Trae Young or one of the Nets missing superstars.

“That’s where you miss the superstars, especially in the fourth quarter,’ Dinwiddie said. “That stretch from six minutes to 30 seconds left on the clock, that’s where you really miss it. Your guy gets touched, and you are going to get the call,” said Dinwiddie who played with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Johnson noted afterwards that team defense is going to be dependent on how he, Bridges, Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith adopt to a whole new nomenclature.

“Not to make any excuses, but for four years I’ve had a coach staff who was very adamant on certain defensive principles. And after day after day after day of working on them, they get ingrained in your head. So some of the principles we have here in Brooklyn are the almost complete opposite,” he explained.

“Once we kind of iron out those instances where you’re reacting a quarter of a second later, I think our defense will be a lot sharper. There’s a couple of rotations that I know personally over the last five games that I’ve missed just because I’m caught in a middle ground where my mind is reverting back to old habits.”

There’s a good defensive team in here, somewhere. But there’s a lot of work to be done in the interim. Getting everyone on the same page on defense is a start.

Milestone Watch

  • Highest-scoring games of Cam Johnson’s career:

38 points - with Phoenix - March 4, 2022 vs. New York

29 points - with Phoenix - November 1, 2022 vs. Minnesota

27 points - with Brooklyn - today at Atlanta

  • Games with four 20-point scorers for the Nets this season:

Today at Atlanta - Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson and Cam Thomas

December 10 at Indiana - Patty Mills, Day’Ron Sharpe, Edmond Sumner and Cam Thomas

Quin Snyder hired by Hawks

Quin Snyder was hired as head coach of the Hawks to replace the fired Nate McMillan, the team announced shortly after the end of Sunday’s game.

The Hawks reached an agreement with Snyder on a five-year deal only five days after firing McMillan on Tuesday. The team has scheduled a news conference for Monday to introduce Snyder.

On Monday, Marc Stein reported that after the Nets dumped Steve Nash, they had interest in bringing on Snyder.

What’s next

The Nets head home to host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday at 7:30 P.M. EST. Coverage begins on the YES Network.

For a different perspective on tonight’s game, head to Peachtree Hoops, our Hawks sister site.