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Nets take down Nuggets in Denver, 122-120

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Brooklyn Nets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

For the second straight game, the Brooklyn Nets held a one-possession lead with less than two seconds left in the fourth quarter, needing just one stop to secure an impressive win over a Western conference playoff team. This one, though, would weigh a little more than their victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Brooklyn was facing the Denver Nuggets, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who was certainly playing like he wanted that three-peat on Sunday afternoon.

Having already amassed 35 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 assists, Jokic caught the ball in the left corner, turned, and fired what would be a devastating, game-winning three should it hit the bottom of the net. Just under 48 hours earlier, Naz Reid, down three, fired up a similar shot that did go in, sending the Nets and Wolves to overtime, where, by the skin of their teeth, Brooklyn would hold on for a win. But a Jokic make would end the game right there and then, down just two. It would’ve sent a rowdy Denver crowd into euphoria, and a Nets team that had fought so hard in the second half into a long, dejected walk back to the visiting locker room.

But the Joker’s shot clanged off the rim, and the Nets, once again, survived at the very edge of their limit. Despite a whole lot of MVP-level dominance from the opposition, and a whole lot of iffy whistles, Brooklyn held on to defeat the Western conference’s one-seed by a score of 122-120.

There is much praise to be doled out, as there often is after a victory against a team of Denver’s caliber. Spencer Dinwiddie offered up a career-high 16 assists, the prettiest of which was this huge lob to Nic Claxton:

“He’s tuned in and turned on…Every night he’s producing for us. He’s learning how to play with this group…he’s tuned into each individual…” said Jacque Vaughn of Dinwiddie, adding “It is a luxury as a coach when you can have a player on the floor who can manage a basketball game.”

“It’s a great stepping stone for our group obviously,” said Dinwiddie. “I won’t necessarily call it a young group of terms of our age but we’re a young group in terms of time spent together and trying to gel and coalesce. And to do against a top team is big time.”

But Dinwiddie nearly erased all the goodwill he built up over the first 42 minutes of the game with a tough, and not in the good way, closing six minutes. Missed shots and, in his opinion, missed foul calls led to frustration and bloopers of his own. With 45 seconds left and the Nets holding a two-point lead, Dinwiddie hacked Nikola Jokic 70 feet from the basket, sending the Serbian giant to the line with a chance to tie the game. (Luckily, Jokic missed the first free-throw.)

Late-game offense is still, as it was predicted to be with this group of players, Brooklyn’s bug-a-boo. With just under six minutes left, they held an eleven-point lead, before only scoring six points the rest of the way. Too many possessions saw Dinwiddie dribble into nothingness, or react too slowly to double-teams beyond the arc. Some of it is on his decision-making, which again, was awesome for most of the night, and some of it is on the coaching staff, who has to find ways to diversify the offense and get Mikal Bridges involved more. I suppose that would be the inverse-silver lining of this tremendous win where, again, Dinwiddie was a net positive, to say the least.

The biggest helpings of praise, though, have to go to Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith. The two wings captained Brooklyn’s most important stretch of the game, a 37-18 third quarter which shifted momentum entirely away from Denver. With just under nine minutes left in that frame, Nic Claxton picked up his fourth foul, and headed to the bench. Rather than insert backup center Nerlens Noel, Vaughn opted for O’Neale. It was settled; the Nets would go small, double team Jokic, and fly around like hell off the ball. It worked, largely thanks to Finney-Smith and O’Neale playing like madmen:

Yes, it certainly helps that the two combined to make eight of their fourteen 3-point attempts, five of which came from Finney-Smith, who Nets fans have been hoping regress to the mean with his long-distance shooting. But their largest contributions, the ones that swung the game in Brooklyn’s favor, not just on the scoreboard but stylistically, came within the margins. Defense (the Nets forced fifteen Denver turnovers) and hustle plays led to fast-breaks, which led to easy buckets. There is perhaps no more agonizing task in the NBA than to defend Nikola Jokic on a size-mismatch, but those two did it admirably all second half, including on the game’s final possession:

And while Nic Claxton’s second-half playing time was depressed by foul trouble, he made his minutes count, specifically in the first half. Over those first 24 minutes, he had 16 points without missing a shot, and far from all of them were alley-oop dunks or uncontested lay-ins. Clax put in real work offensively, specifically on the short roll after Denver would trap Brooklyn’s ball-handlers:

No, he couldn't stop Jokic one-on-one. In fact, outside of the third quarter and the game’s final seconds, Brooklyn couldn’t slow the NBA’s most famous horse-lover down at all. Denver won his minutes by 14 freaking points and they still lost. But if timely defense pushed the Nets over the top today, their offense was the steadying force, and Nic Claxton helped drive that offense in the first half, helping to keep pace with the Nuggets.

Simply put, the Nets won because almost everybody who touched the floor contributed in a major way (sorry, Nerlens Noel). Joe Harris and Seth Curry combined for 21 points on 14 shots. Mikal Bridges, of course, had another 25 points and showcased an ever-expanding offensive repertoire, including post-ups of smaller guards that Denver dared tried to defend him with:

Even Cam Johnson who was relatively quiet overall, putting up just 14 points, was a catalyst in the first-half lineups that destroyed the Nuggets bench and kept Brooklyn in the game. As it must be when you beat a team with the league’s reigning MVP, this was a team effort, despite some signs of the growing pains these Nets are going through.

“Even if we don’t know what we’re doing sometimes, just scrambling, all five guys help each other,” Bridges said. “Sometimes, it’s not going to be perfect, but I think just the next guy stepping up is the biggest thing.”

But if Sunday’s victory was any indication, much less a 5-1 stretch with wins over two of the league’s three best records, Brooklyn may come out the other side tall and strong. Now holding sole possession of the Eastern conference’s fifth-seed, I doubt any team is truly licking their chops to play against these guys in the playoffs. Any contender should just ask the Nuggets how relentless the Nets can be over 48 minutes.

“I wouldn’t say a statement win, not yet,” said Claxton. “It’s definitely a game that we can build off of. We just got to keep growing as a team.”

Bottom line for the head coach.

“Lots of commas,” Vaughn said pre-game. “So our group is learning how to play together, comma. We’re learning how to initiate and be dictators on the defensive end of the floor, comma. We’re learning how to play with pace and spray the ball around and we know we can shoot 3s, comma.

“So we’re gonna continue in this sentence to create commas for this group, which is a great place to be in because we’re growing, learning each other, we’re going to save the periods for later on with this group.”

“For me I love when things aren’t comfortable and this is a great challenge for us. Play a high-level team, early game on the road,” said Vaughn before the game. “Are you going to complete the task or are you going to complain? So I’m big on I think complaining kills culture and we’re trying to build a culture and grow together as a group so today kind of find your way, show up, make your mark and don’t complain.”

Mikal Bridges - “I like it here a lot”

Shortly after the Nets big win, Mikal Bridges posted this on his Instagram page...

Feeling’s mutual.

Milestone Watch

  • The Nuggets lost for only the sixth time at Ball Arena this season.
  • Brooklyn improves to 21-17 on the road this season, tied with Boston for the most road wins in the league.
  • Spencer Dinwiddie set a career-high with 16 assists today. This is the highest assist total for a Net this season.
  • Nic Claxton had the first 20-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist game of his career. However, he wasn’t credited with a block for the first time since the Nets lost to Phoenix on February 7, just before the trade deadline.
  • Dorian Finney-Smith matched his career-high with four steals. He previously recorded four steals on January 26, 2017 with Dallas at Oklahoma City.
  • The Nets once again dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Nuggets 37-18. It’s a trend. Tuesday at Houston: +9; Thursday at Milwaukee: +10; Friday at Minnesota: +17, Sunday at Denver: +19. Total advantage in four third quarters: +55
  • Nets are now 7-7 since the Nets-Suns trade and 8-9 since Kyrie Irving asked for a trade.

Nets to re-evaluate Ben Simmons when home

Ben Simmons was sidelined for a 10th consecutive game with left knee and back soreness.

“Yeah, I think first of all I’ll just be pretty simple. He’s still managing his back and knee soreness, He’s back home in Brooklyn. We’ll get a chance to kind of see where he’s at when we get back home after this trip,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. Nets return home Wednesday.

Simmons hasn’t played since before the All-Star Break, just days after the Nets two big trades.

What’s next?

The Nets make the short trip from Denver to Oklahoma City then play the Thunder at 8:00 p.m. ET. Tuesday. After that, the Nets play 10 of their last 13 at home.

For a different perspective on Sunday’s matinee, head on over to Denver Stiffs, our Nuggets sister site.