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FILM STUDY: Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith are doing the job for Brooklyn

The pair of feisty wings is doing both the glamorous and the dirty work for Brooklyn during this hot streak

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

After seasons of pleading from the fanbase, and perhaps nudging from their star player (“It’s a wings league...”) the Brooklyn Nets roster is finally filled to the brim with wings. And it only took the most transformational trade deadline in franchise history, where Brooklyn lost the star players said wings were supposed to compliment. Ah! Well. Nevertheless...

So now, most of the rotation-worthy Nets 3-and-D to various extents, with Mikal Bridges aiming to bust through that label with every decent imitation of a Kevin Durant pull-up. The question that will become obvious, if it isn’t already, is, “should they be?” Let’s assume some aggregate of all those trade-rumor aggregations are true: Brooklyn could be a handful of first-round picks wealthier right now, at the expense of some of their wings. The market was pretty wacky this February, especially if you believe Michael Scotto’s report that the Memphis Grizzlies offered four first-round picks for Bridges or Brian Lewis’ report that another, unnamed, team offered two firsts for Finney-Smith. Not to rain on the five-wins-in-their-last-six-games-including-three-wins-over-playoff-opponents parade™, but...are we sure about this?

OK, sorry, just asking belated questions. To be fair, these questions that become more annoying to consider when you realize that, had Sean Marks vanquished Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale for draft capital, this stretch of exhilarating basketball wouldn’t be. The Nets don’t defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves without them, and they certainly don’t defeat the Denver Nuggets either. Why? Because while O’Neale and Finney-Smith are not without flaws, they’re duct-taping Brooklyn together right now.

Royce O’Neale

Predictably, this Nets team is susceptible to brutal droughts on offense, particularly as the game slows down late. Without superstar bucket-getters, this may ultimately be their undoing in the playoffs. Hell, it’s a minor miracle they've won five of six - over that stretch, their offensive rating in the fourth quarter is a rancid 96.6 (per, only better than the Houston Rockets, who would have already been relegated in most countries.

And you don’t just need to numbers to tell that story. Think back to all those late game possessions in Denver, where Spencer Dinwiddie dribbled around looking for a call, with little ball and/or player movement to speak of. This problem is a product of the roster that must be alleviated in some way by the coaching staff and players.

Royce O’Neale, for one, is doing his best. That starts with the fact that he’s been anything but a fake-shooter since he got to Brooklyn, forcing defenses to close out to him. He’s up to 39.5% from deep on 8.2 attempts/100 possessions, both career-highs. For reference, Seth Curry is shooting the exact same percentage on 9.1 attempts per 100, albeit with more off-the-dribble attempts. Another career-high for O’Neale, though, is the average distance of his three-pointers, 25.95 feet (shoutout to

To recap: He’s taking a lot of threes, making a lot of ‘em, and crucially, he’s way beyond the arc on a lot of those attempts. Forcing such long closeouts makes it easier for O’Neale to put the ball and floor and find teammates, a skill that, as Zach Lowe pointed out all the way back in 2018, came around before his shooting did.

The ball gets to one side of the court, then Royce pump-fakes, goes, and gets it to the second side for good looks. Brooklyn’s coaching staff has emphasized the importance of getting up at least forty three-pointers lately, but as Jacque Vaughn says, “as long as they’re good ones.” Well, getting the ball deep into the paint and forcing the defense to scramble before firing certainly helps.

But it hasn’t just been attacking closeouts for Rolls Royce. He’s showing real craft in more static situations, like pick-and-rolls and handoffs, which the Nets desperately need considering, uh, the team they have:

Here’s where I mention that O’Neale might be the league’s worst two-point scorer, shooting far worse inside the arc than outside of it. Cleaning the Glass has him at 57-of-163 on two-point attempts for the season, AKA a mortifying 34.9%. There are many ways to expound on how bad that is, but none worth the time, so we’ll just leave it at that. O’Neale makes the right decision as often as any other Net, even when it’s to shoot a two-pointer. And while those mostly doesn’t go in, O’Neale’s decision-making is still a lifeline that Brooklyn’s offense has benefitted greatly from. As hard as he plays, as often as he’s in the right spots on defense, his offensive game is perhaps the biggest reason he’s played over 30 minutes a night in his last five appearances, all Brooklyn wins.

Perhaps paying more attention to the Quin Snyder-era Utah Jazz would’ve lessened the surprise of O’Neale’s playmaking. The shooting itself would have been an unexpected plus, a legitimate leap in marksmanship in his age-29 season. But O’Neale’s ability to inject life into Brooklyn’s offense, just enough to maintain their vital signs, has been his most important contribution over the past two weeks.

Dorian Finney-Smith

The case for Dorian Finney-Smith would have been harder to sell to Nets fans before a triumphant performance in that epic win over the Denver Nuggets. Doe-Doe shot 5-of-7 from deep, including some high-leverage makes. It was hopefully the start of a regression to the mean for his shooting. His previous four seasons (including this abbreviated one) in Dallas featured 3-point percentages of 38, 40, 40, and 36. But even after that Nuggets game, DFS is only shooting 29.0% from deep in a Nets uniform, although that span only amasses 68 attempted threes, a nothing-burger of a sample size. (Still, that’s a lot better than his first good game beyond the arc up in Boston when he was shooting 20.6%.)

So it’s still somewhat of a hard case, despite Finney-Smith’s contributions to this group’s best win yet. This isn’t made easier by the fact that, like Royce O’Neale, DFS offers little in terms of inside-the-arc scoring. So, has he really been a plus despite being unable to hit water from a boat?

Well, yes. I wrote about his reputation as a tunnel-visioned driver just after Brooklyn traded for him, that he’s not a guy you want putting the ball on the floor. And while Finney-Smith isn’t quite in O’Neale’s league as an attacker of closeouts, he’s shown more drive-and-dish ability in just 14 Nets appearances than I thought he had in him:

Now, this part of his game is far form perfect. He’s liable to miss open cutters and relocating shooters; dealing with too many moving parts isn’t his thing. And if nothing opens up, DFS can get himself stuck in a precarious position.

But, in a four-out and sometimes five-out offense, he’s not a total liability as a driver, which was no guarantee. Better yet, Finney-Smith, occasionally known to have a shy trigger, has let it fly in Brooklyn, shooting about five threes a game. In their small-ball line-ups, Jacque Vaughn & co. have even experimented with using him as a kind of pick-and-pop big:

That second attempt is real encouraging, confidently knocking down an open three vs. a sagging, traditional big. With a sample size this small, there’s nothing else to do but hope Finney-Smith’s numbers from deep normalize while he keeps shooting them at the same rate. Deploying him in the pick-and-pop as a small-ball five would be a nice wrinkle for Brooklyn, the benefits of which could only be reaped if he’s willing to shoot the rock.

But his impact, a bit more than O’Neale’s, extends to the defensive side. After all, praise for DFS as a ‘three-and-D’ wing has always been heaped more heavily on the latter part of that phrase. He’s already shown that he’ll make some highlight plays on that end adding resistance at the rim thanks to his instincts and timing. Neither of these are easy blocks, but he has these all the way:

His reputation as an event-creator on defense (steals, blocks, deflections) without constantly getting into foul trouble is well-earned. DFS is a long, physical defender who’s proven he can take on any assignment that he must in his short time as a Net. Brooklyn’s coaching staff has been intent on using Nic Claxton as a roamer, guarding non-star players in order to be available at the rim more often to contest shots. So against Milwaukee, Finney-Smith was the primary defender against Giannis Antetokoumpo; he was far from a push-over, more than most can say.

And when the Nets when small against the Nuggets, he got the dreaded Nikola Jokic assignment. Obviously, Finney-Smith was aided by double teams and aggressive help, considering the half-foot height and half-century weight differences. But his non-stop aggression fronting the post and communicating with his teammates made Denver’s life hell for enough stretches to get Brooklyn the win. DFS ended up with four steals in the box score, but the eye test could’ve told you he was no fun to play against either:

If basketball is about a bucket, which it indeed is, Dorian Finney-Smith needs to do a better job at getting those in a Brooklyn uniform. But his outings as a Net have been nothing less than commendable, and he’s doing what the team has needed to stack up these recent victories. Guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, then Anthony Edwards, then Nikola Jokic at just 6’6” is a tall task. All that in addition to Brooklyn needing his offense to be better, and more advanced than Dallas did. But the results on both fronts have been acceptable, if not pleasant, for Dorian Finney-Smith. No, he’s not setting the world on fire, and you still don’t quite know what’s going to happen when he puts the ball on the floor. But he’s been doing all Brooklyn has asked of him, and doing it well enough over these past two weeks to play a huge part in this solid stretch of basketball.

Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith could easily be on contenders right now, contributing to a team that has legitimate aspirations of making a title run. Surely, these teams would (and likely did) offer a first-round pick or two for their services. Would Brooklyn rather have those picks in the long run? Well, don’t make me answer now, not when the two are continuing to expand their games, particularly off the dribble, and contribute to such fun, legitimate wins. The Nets aren’t just beating up on Charlotte and Houston (though they are doing that, too), but taking it to good and great teams on the road. Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith are right in the middle of it all.

Whatever you say, well, that’s what I’m gonna do

Cause I’m the working man, lord, and I do the job for you