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Nets mount huge comeback to defeat Wizards, 125-123, in off-beat classic

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Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. You can buy a ticket weeks in advance to watch Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis face off with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant at the Barclays Center, with all four looking to put a ton of points on the board in a matchup between two teams that have given us some crazy games recently. Instead, you’ll end up with Cam Thomas taking on Monte Morris in the final seconds of a game as thrilling as one could hope for.

Initially, this looked like it was going to be an absolutely miserable disaster of a basketball game. Not sure if you’ve heard, but the Nets are dealing with some…stuff…again. Remember how they gave up 46 points in the first quarter in Boston on Wednesday, the start of one of their worst losses in franchise history? Well, they gave up another 44 points to the Washington Wizards in the first frame on Saturday evening. The Nets were down 19 as the first quarter buzzer sounded, looked lifeless, and to make matters worse, there wasn’t a Wizard capable of missing, it seemed.

That Brooklyn turned it into a competitive basketball game is a testament, largely, to Jacque Vaughn and his indomitable spirit. He was doing jumping jacks on the sideline when he wasn’t literally picking his guys up off the floor. That they freaking won a barnburner, 125-123? That’s a testament to Cam Thomas, firstly, with credits to a host of other Nets like Edmond Sumner, Nic Claxton, and Royce O’Neale. It’s also a testament to the magic that can happen when you put some of the 500 best basketball players in the world on a court - no matter who they are, no matter the surrounding circumstances - roll the ball out, and tell them to hoop.

Washington hardly let up in the second quarter, however. At one point, it was 44-21 Wiz, good for a 23-point lead. They finished the first half shooting 57.1% from deep, compared to the Nets paltry 33.3%. Kristaps Porzingis, who’s being snubbed from All-Star snub lists, put up a hyper-efficient 20 points while missing just two shots. The Wizards, less than 24 hours removed from blowing a 20-point lead and losing to the Portland Trail Blazers, took a 73-55 lead into the half.

“We talked about at halftime that it was more than the physical piece of this game that we were missing. It was the mental piece of this game,” said Jacque Vaughn.

Edmond Sumner agreed: “The biggest thing is energy and playing harder...That should never be a problem; we think we started out very slow.”

Brooklyn’s comeback, if there was going to be one, would have to wait until the third quarter. Slowly but surely, there was. “You cut it to ten, they start to panic, you cut it to five, they start to pucker,” said Richard Jefferson, sometime in that third frame. And with every Cam Thomas bucket, who ended up with 44 points, and every Edmond Sumner drive and finish - who also went for a career-high in points with 29 of ‘em - that’s exactly what happened. Could this actually be a game? Like, a real, competitive game? How much motivating could Jacque Vaughn do in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s trade request? How much could these players, bless their hearts, really care about the damn Wizards on a Saturday night?

After Patty Mills hit back-to-back threes to cut the lead to seven points in the third quarter, we got our answer. They cared a lot:

That was the first real moment of belief for the Barclays Center crowd, and perhaps for some of the Nets. While injuries to Seth Curry and Markieff Morris trimmed their 10-man rotation to just eight, Washington got the worst of it, with Kyle Kuzma exiting due to injury in the second quarter.

The Nets then made hay by attacking Kristaps Porzingis. While the Latvian Laser did finish with 38 points, he had to deal with foul trouble most of the night, first giving up this easy drive to Edmond Sumner before fouling out a few possessions later:

Then, it was an Old West duel between Cam Thomas and Monte Morris. A whole lot of floaters and step-back twos before Thomas converted an and-one opportunity thanks to a Daniel Gafford goaltend. Monte Morris then missed a pair of potentially game-tying free-throws, and the Nets escaped with a ridiculous 125-123 win over Washington. The sort of win Nets fans will be “remember when?”-ing for seasons to come.

Jacque Vaughn summed up the spirit and message surround his team quite eloquently, as he does: “You get today. We’re not promised tomorrow. What if this is your last game? What would your approach be? How would your mentality be? How would your performance be?”

Cam Thomas, as he also does, was less outwardly poetic and enthused about the whole comeback win he had just dominated in: “It’s good, yeah it’s good. We kinda did the same thing in Indiana, so, you know, just another day. It feels good because it was at home.”

And you’re out of your mind if you think Cam’s performance was the least bit surprising to him: “I could always do the stuff y’all seen tonight.”

This basketball thing is a crazy business sometimes. Nets fans, more than any group of people, know that. And yet, the hits don’t stop coming. It’s just one win in a long season, and a storyline that, considering the Irving situation, will get quickly swept over. ESPN’s morning shows on Sunday and thereafter will not lead with this game - one of the NBA’s wildest this season. It will instead be a pint-sized footnote in the Irving saga.

But it’s worth appreciating in the moment, that’s for sure. What a win.

Film Room

  • What, other than simple effort, led to the turning of the tides tonight? It was largely - Brooklyn’s ability to turn the game into a transition affair. They ended up winning the battle of fast break points by a whopping 27-6 margin. The only reason a downtrodden first half didn’t complete sink Brooklyn was because they got just enough easy ones on the break to keep it manageable:
  • Cam Thomas’ touch in the intermediate area is the most special part of his game. We expect damn near every one of these attempts to fall:

LaMarcus Aldridge-esque, one might say.

  • A game with no stars and no real-table setters, and Nic Claxton ends up with 15/13/7/3/1. Ho-hum. That’s just what Clax does now. (Although the 7-of-8 performance from the line was a particularly pleasant sight.) As always, it’s the wingspan that gives opponents the most trouble.

In the second half, Brooklyn starting defending screening actions with a heightened focus on Kristaps Porzingis popping out to the arc. On the play below, Patty Mills makes a concerted effort to stick to KP. Why can he afford to do that? Well...

Milestone Watch

  • Firstly, a whole lot of Cam Thomas milestones. A career-high of 44 points, and only the eighth player in NBA history to score 44 in 29 minutes or less. In the same vein, he joined Stephon Marbury as the only other Net to put up 40 in 30 minutes or less. Thomas also became the third-youngest player in NBA history to put up two Andrew Jacksons off the bench. And lastly, and perhaps most obviously, his 44 points are the most by a bench player this season.
  • Edmond Sumner also put up a career-high with 29 points, his third 20-piece this season.
  • The 23-point comeback matched the Nets’ fourth-largest in franchise history.
  • YES Network pointed out that Royce O’Neale, in just 49 appearances, has already set a career-high for assist totals in a single season, having dropped 192 dimes to this point.

Injury Watch

It wasn’t all peaches and cream (it hardly ever is) for Brooklyn on Saturday night, despite the win. Two veterans, Markieff Morris and Seth Curry, made early exits with injuries. Jacque Vaughn confirmed in postgame that Morris exited due to “knee soreness” and Curry was dealing with an abductor muscle in his groin.

Vaughn would add, “I hope [Sunday] is a day pointing towards that direction where the guys who didn’t play can get back on the court a little bit and hopefully be ready for the next game.”

Kyrie Watch

Apparently not too enthralled with Brooklyn’s crazy win, Adrian Wojnarowski had time to tweet out this update on Kyrie Irving’s trade request during the game:

Woj would go on to add in a follow up tweet that the Nets are “determined to find a deal for Irving ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline, sources said.”

Before the game, Nic Claxton was asked about Irving and his request.

“I have no idea. I mean, no idea. I just work here at the end of the day,” said Claxton, who said he won’t try to sway Irving. “No. That’s not my job. My job is to come out here everyday and compete at the highest level, stay healthy and help my team win basketball games.”

Claxton said he didn’t think Irving was letting the team down.

“No. I mean at the end of the day we’re all our own individuals and we have to do what’s best for us and if that’s what a grown man thinks is best for him to do then that’s best for him to do,” Claxton said. “I can’t judge anybody for what they want to do.”

Royce O’Neale also said he learned of Irving’s demand on Twitter, with no more advance notice than any average fan got.

“Same way everybody else: Twitter,” O’Neale said. “[I was] surprised. But it’s a new day. We get the hoop.”

Cam Thomas was asked if he would call Irving.

“For what? That’s his business. I’m trying to get ready for a game. At the end of the day, he’s made the best decision for himself,” Thomas said. “And like I said [he’s] still my brother. So whatever he does I’m going to be [supportive], be happy for him, still call him and everything.”

Next up

For a different perspective on Saturday's epic comeback, go to Bullets Forever.

Brooklyn’s next contest will be against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, February 6, at 7:30 p.m. ET. Could Kyrie Irving be playing in that one....against Brooklyn?