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Nets fall to OKC in dispiriting finale to road trip, 121-107

Brooklyn ran out of gas in a brutal second half that cost them a chance at another impressive road victory

Brooklyn Nets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets took a 62-52 lead into half-time on the final leg of their five-game road trip against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it didn’t really feel like they had the game in hand. OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had missed three gimme-layups and still had 17 points after 24 minutes. His Australian backcourt mate, Josh Giddey, was also living in the paint; the two of them were getting wherever they wanted, as they often do:

Of course, ten points in the NBA is nothing, but especially so when it doesn’t really feel like you’re outplaying your opponent by that much. The Thunder, a league-average team in 3-point percentage, were also just 2-of-13 from beyond at the half. Something was going to give. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be the style of ball the Nets were playing on offense, which was admittedly beautiful. The ball was popping to a tune of 20 assists on 22 made field goals, and while the Nets were pushing the pace, they were under control doing so. Brooklyn wasn't shooting the lights out by any stretch, making a modest ten of their 26 threes, but the offense just felt right. No possession is more exemplary of their first half than this one:

When asked what was working so well in the first half, Cam Johnson replied “I think just moving the ball, punishing the way they pull in, punishing what they were trying to do. That was working for us, and sometimes it’s about shot-making too. We didn’t make as many shots as we could have or should have.”

As it always is, though, closing out the last game of a road trip against a good team (OKC has the fifth-best point differential in the West...they’re good) would be difficult. And Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, it was simply too difficult for the Brooklyn Nets to pull off.

The Thunder blew the roof off their home building in the third quarter, out-scoring Brooklyn 38-20 in the period, a period the Nets had previously dominated on this road-trip. Once OKC took its first lead of the second half at 78-75, it felt like that was about it for the Nets, and it was. They wound up falling by a final score of 121-107, never getting it closer than five in the fourth quarter.

Everything that could have gone wrong in the second half went wrong. After nine assists and two turnovers in the first half, Spencer Dinwiddie’s production plummeted with two assists and four turnovers in the second. He was the worst version of himself that we saw towards the end of Brooklyn’s victory over Denver, passing too early when he had steps on defenders, too distracted by an insatiable thirst for foul calls. This game-ending possession sums his second half up:

Over the last two games, one of which was this group’s best team-win, I’ve been hard on Dinwiddie, despite the excellent first halves he’s played in both. The reality is that he has a tough, tough job right now, as the only traditional guard in the rotation, leading a team that just finished learning each other’s names. Dinwiddie, after two seasons of molding his game around being more of a catch-and-shoot threat off of Luka Doncic, suddenly has as much on his plate as anybody in the NBA. And while he has to be better, his coaching staff has to do a better job of making his life easier, whether that’s more creative offensive sets or trusting Mikal Bridges as more of an initiator.

Jacque Vaughn, of course, did not mention Dinwiddie by name when discussing Brooklyn’s second-half struggles, and praised the Thunder for their game-plan: “You give them credit. They end up going a little smaller and switching some things; that made us more stagnant. Still should have allowed us to get to the paint and get to the rim if we were persistent not have any assists in the third quarter* is a big part of us not winning tonight.”

*Brooklyn did record one lonely assist in the period.

Of course, this loss isn't solely on the shoulders of Dinwiddie, who, again, played a great first half, at one point leading the Nets to their game-high lead of 16 just before the break. This team is unfortunately built to go through cold stretches on offense, and when that happens, it cannot feel like the roof is collapsing in on them, as it did in the third quarter. Oklahoma City started getting to every loose ball, whether off the floor or off the glass, and out-sprinting the Nets in transition. It’s freaking hard to win the last game of a tough road trip, especially after a win like Brooklyn had over the Nuggets. This stuff does happen. But if they’re not going to make excuses, which they shouldn’t, the little things can’t stack up into a big advantage in the Thunder’s favor.

While Vaughn mentioned Lu Dort’s excellent shooting night (five makes in the second half), he added that “it was the plays before that. Their ability to impact winning from offensive rebounding, from the 50/50 balls that we didn’t get, those are things that we can control. We didn't finish the [first] half the right way, and then that bled into the third quarter.”

Cam Johnson echoed that message, stating that even though the Thunder made shots that shifted momentum, “it’s more about us, than about them.”

There was also the matter of pick-and-roll defense, which was an all-around abomination. Brooklyn started out hedging most ball-screens, exclusively hedging when Nic Claxton’s man wasn’t the screener, and ended up in drop coverage by the end of the game, where Claxton is decent, but doesn’t excel. It felt like Jacque Vaughn & Co. were petrified to let OKC, a relentless paint-pressuring team, pull their DPOY-candidate away from the rim. Fair. But boy it feels like they should have just given in and switched Claxton onto to those shifty Thunder guards and just seen how it went for a few possessions. The Nets guards couldn’t keep up with their matchups around screens, and Claxton’s rim-protecting ability slowly vanished into nothing. Just about every Thunder pick-and-roll looked like this by the fourth quarter:

This was especially confounding when Josh Giddey was the ball-handler, a promising guard known for everything but his wiggles. You know, his handles, shake, burst, shimmy. At 6’8”, he bodies smaller matchups and sees the whole court over them, but that feels like a tailor-made matchup for Nic Claxton. Smaller and slower? Anyway.

The Brooklyn Nets did not lose this game for any one reason, and it’s not like there weren't positive signs, despite that ugly second half where they got outscored 69-45. There are stretches of impressive offense to build upon. Mikal Bridges didn’t set the gym on fire with his jump-shooting and still finished the night with 34 points on a respectable 23 shots, and added four blocks. The Nets wound up making just 11 of their 33 long-distance attempts, and even though the ball wasn't popping in the second half, when OKC turned their defense up, that felt low, based on the quality of their looks. Brooklyn continues to be menacing in transition as well, scoring a ridiculous 23 points off 11 forced turnovers.

Regardless, it’s back home for the Nets after a solid road trip that ended on a sour note. The five-seed is still alive, and they may even retain their grasp on it, should the New York Knicks lose their late game on the West coast. But this team has aways to go. Oklahoma City proved that to Brooklyn on Tuesday night.

Milestone watch

  • Bridges posted two career-highs in this one, attempting 11 free throws and blocking four shots (though the latter merely tied his previously personal best)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie’s 16 points and 11 assists were good for his third-straight double-double, a career-high.
  • Nic Claxton’s 12 points and 12 boards gave him his team-high 23rd double-double, no small feat after recording just five such games in his first three seasons combined.

Standings Watch

With the Knicks beating the Trail Blazers in Portland, they move back into the fifth seed and the Nets fall behind New York by a game.

Heavy minutes for starters

Dorian Finney-Smith played the least of any member of Brooklyn’s starting five, clocking in 34 minutes. The other four all played 38-39 minutes, maybe a surprisingly high amount for the last game of a road trip. It seems like Jacque Vaughn really wanted to have this one. The NY Post’s Brian Lewis asked Vaughn, postgame, if he thought about fatigue levels coming off the Denver game: “It’s interesting, I kind of went reverse and played the starting five heavy minutes. There’s something psychological and mental about that. Can you be at the end of a road trip and somehow manage to get a win? Can you play heavy minutes and worry about the next day, the next day...that’s what playoff basketball is about.”

That certainly does not sound like a coach losing sleep over the heavy minutes his main guys are playing. It’s fair to ask if that stems from a lack of trust in the bench, but probably more reasonable to assume that Vaughn wants his brand-new starting five to gel as much as possible before they get to the playoffs.

Decision time for Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel didn’t play vs. the Thunder and his 10-day contract is up Wednesday. The Nets can extend him for another 10 days if they want or let his contract simply expire, giving them an open roster spot. He’s played in three games, starting one and scoring three points while shooting 1-of-6.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next?

The Nets return home to play the Sacramento Kings at 7:30 p.m. ET. on Thursday, the start of a four-game stretch at home.

For a different perspective on the game, head on over to Loud City, our SBNation sister site.