Things appear to be falling into place for the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are looking to make it three-straight dubs heading into Wednesday’s game in Oklahoma City. There, they’ll play a gutsy Thunder team that houses the youngest roster in the league. Like Brooklyn, the Thunder have been on an absolute tear as of late and have racked up wins in five of their last six games, including a very impressive victory against the Golden State Warriors that featured a 40-piece from Steph Curry.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, has won five of their last six games, highlighted by Sunday’s road victory over the Denver Nuggets, who entered the game a league-best 30-5 at home. It took some time, but the Nets are finally starting to showcase their expected identity of being a versatile and rangy defensive team. Brooklyn has been the league’s fifth-best defense since March 1, and the length found up and down the roster after swapping Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for 6’6” Spencer Dinwiddie, 6’7: Dorian Finney-Smith, 6’6 Mikal Bridges (with his 7’1” wingspan), and 6’8 Cameron Johnson has greatly enhanced Jacque Vaughn’s switching scheme. The Nets are effectively interchangeable at every position, and it’s paying dividends.
Both teams are in dire need of a victory. Brooklyn is currently tied with the crosstown rival New York Knicks for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 39-29 record. The loser in the race for the fifth seed is currently slotted to play James Harden, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and the streaking Philadelphia 76ers (winners of five in a row) in a potential first-round 3/6 series matchup. Yikes. Not fun.
The Thunder, meanwhile, are fighting for their playoff (or rather, play-in tournament) lives and are 33-35 on the season. Oklahoma City is in a four-way tie with the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and New Orleans Pelicans for the ninth seed in a very congested Western Conference; they’re just one game behind the 7th and 8th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks; and they’re two games behind Golden State for the sixth spot. They don’t call it the Wild, Wild West for nothing! Seeding in the conference likely goes down to the wire. Talk about a photo finish!
Where to watch
You know the drill. YES Network will be handling all coverage, and tip-off begins at 8:00 PM EST on Wednesday. Ryan Ruocco and Sarah Kustok will be calling the game, and Meghan Triplett is on sideline reporting duties. For our radio listeners, WFAN has got ya’ covered.
Ben Simmons remains out with left knee and back soreness. If you’re looking for an update on his status, you’ve come to the wrong place. The plan for his return to play is essentially a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ just based on what’s been told to reporters.
As for the Thunder, No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren (right foot) and forward Kenrich Williams (left wrist) are both out with season-ending surgeries to fix a Lisfranc injury and a scapholunate ligament rupture. (Hi to all you orthopedists out there.) Stretch big Aleksej Pokusevski also remains out with a non-displaced tibial plateau fracture in his left leg.
Brooklyn has played Oklahoma City once this season back on January 15, a game that the Thunder won handily, 112-102, behind 56 points from Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the Barclays Center. Now, they’ll play a Thunder team that has performed quite well in their home stadium, going 20-15 at the Paycom Center.
Obviously, this is a very different Nets team than the one that Oklahoma City saw in January. Gone is Kyrie Irving, who had a pedestrian 15 points on 7-of-20 from the field and just 1-of-7 from three the last time these two squads played each other. Kevin Durant was, of course, out with a knee injury. In their places is that aforementioned group of 6’6”+ dudes: Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Johnson, and Bridges.
The big thing to know about The Thunder is that they get to the rim. Religiously. Oklahoma City ranks 2nd in the entire NBA in at-rim shot frequency, with 37.7% of their total shots coming within four feet of the basket. That downhill approach is led by first-time All-Star Gilgeous-Alexander, who we’ll touch on momentarily. Now, what happens when the Thunder actually get to the basket is a different story. Oklahoma City is shooting just 62.8% within four feet of the basket, a success rate that ranks dead last in the NBA.
Still, though, the Thunder can use their downhill tenacity to generate corner threes, a shot they shoot 39% on which ranks 12th in the NBA. Here’s a fun fact: Oklahoma City ranks first in the league in drives per game with 64.1 on average. Second place is the New York Knicks, who average 56.1 drives per contest. In fact, the difference between the Knicks and Thunder for spots #1 and #2 on the drives leaderboard is as large as the difference between the #2 Knicks and the 11th-ranked Minnesota Timberwolves, who average 48.1 drives per game. Oklahoma City is that relentless about knifing to the basket.
The Nets can counteract that strategy by sagging off of Oklahoma City’s shooters not named Isaiah Joe, who is shooting a blistering 43.4% from deep. That’s been the popular strategy that teams have adopted against Oklahoma City this season, daring low-percentage shooters like Josh Giddey (32.2%), Lu Dort (33.5%), and Ousmane Dieng (30.4%) to fire away from deep. In doing so, the Nets will allow low-percentage shots from distance AND clog up the precious driving lanes that Oklahoma City and SGA, especially, thrive off of to create offense. The Thunder have shot 36.5% from three as a team, good for 14th in the NBA.
On Brooklyn’s side of things, getting to the rim will be paramount. The Thunder deploy a fairly minuscule starting lineup, their tallest starter being rookie big man Jaylin Williams at just 6’9. That lack of rim protection has allowed opponents to shoot 61.5% at the basket against OKC, a mark that ranks 24th in the NBA. Look for a big game from Spencer Dinwiddie, who is always a threat to get downhill... especially as of late. Dinwiddie’s turned it up recently by averaging 22.8 points on 44.6% shooting to go with 9.8 assists in his past four contests. Mikal Bridges, too, is a threat to pop off 30+ points. Though, that’s basically a given at this point. He’ll likely be Lu Dort’s defensive assignment, a dogged defender who bothers opposing stars with his stocky frame and impressive physicality. This should be a great test for Mikal, who has yet to disappoint on the big stage for Brooklyn.
Player to watch: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a handful, to put it lightly. Oklahoma City’s cornerstone star has averaged a career-high 31.2 points per game on a career-high 50.9% from the field, incredibly impressive efficiency for a player that ranks 8th in the league in usage rate. SGA sits fourth in the league in scoring, just behind superstar talents Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, and Damian Lillard. His incredible season led to the first All-Star selection of his career.
There isn’t a player like Gilgeous-Alexander in the NBA. He’s incomparable. SGA combines body control that’s arguably second to none in the NBA with an impressive ball-handling package and a gangly frame (highlighted by his 6’11” wingspan) to basically be unguardable in the halfcourt. Gilgeous-Alexender doesn’t just drive to the basket; he glides to the rim like a phantom to find impossible windows to score. Ambidexterity and an array of finishes have allowed SGA to shoot 64% at the rim, which ranks within the 73rd percentile at his position. Plus, Shai drives to the basket an average of 24.1 times per game, which by far and away leads the NBA (second place is Ja Morant with 21.1 drives).
But SGA has made subtle improvements to his game over the years. He’s fairly knockdown from the midrange now, a strong counter to when opponents wall him off from the basket. Fadeaway jumpers, side-step shots, and pull-up midrangers from the free-throw line after bursting out of screens are all within SGA’s repertoire now, and he’s shot a very impressive 46% from the in-between zone, good for the 75th percentile at his position. If defenders go under screens against his pick-and-rolls, Shai is more than capable of knocking down pull-up threes with solid 35.3% accuracy.
SGA gave the Nets a full look at his superstarian skillset the last time these two teams played each other, dropping 28 points on 47.1% shooting to go with 7 rebounds.
For more on SGA, check out Noah’s three-part player profile on TheNBAUnderground. It’s awesome! Maybe one of the most concise player-focused breakdowns I’ve read.
From the vault
No idea why, but playing the Thunder always reminds me of this heartbreaker from the 2018-19 season (my first covering the Brooklyn Nets). God, that Paul Goerge three still stings. UGH! I remember falling to the ground in my Brooklyn studio apartment in disbelief like it was yesterday.
More reading: Welcome to Loud City
- Brooklyn Nets Game Notes - Brooklyn Nets
- Oklahoma City Thunder Game Notes - Oklahoma City Thunder
- Suddenly surging Nets, Thunder on hot streaks going into matchup - STATS
- Oklahoma City plays Brooklyn, aims for 4th straight home win - AP
- Nets’ Nic Claxton starting to show off improved shooting stroke - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Spencer Dinwiddie ‘invaluable’ to surprising Nets in encore - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ No. 1 defense responsible for season-swinging stretch - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Nets victory over Nuggets sees reunion with familiar faces from their recent past - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic
- Ousmane Dieng scores career-high 17 points to lead Thunder past Spurs - Joe Mussatto - Daily Oklahoman