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Nets open up homestand with 101-96 loss to Kings

Sacramento Kings v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

They had plenty of chances, but the Nets just couldn’t get the job done.

Brooklyn lost to the second-seeded Sacramento Kings, 101-96 on Thursday night. It was the Nets’ second-straight loss and now head into Sunday to host the Western Conference’s number one seed, the Denver Nuggets. With the loss, Brooklyn is now behind the New York Knicks by 1.5 games in the battle for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Sacramento, meanwhile, clinched its first winning season since 2005-06 with the victory.

“I think what we talked about before the game is trying to put four quarters together. You look at the second quarter 13-point difference, big opportunity in the game that they took advantage of,” said Jacque Vaughn. “So again, our challenge is to be locked in each quarter, produce each quarter on both ends of the floor.”

Brooklyn was led by Mikal Bridges, as usual, who had 24 points on an efficient 7-of-17 shooting line. Unfortunately, though he played well throughout the majority of the contest, he missed a couple of looks late in the game that could’ve swung the game in Brooklyn’s favor.

Nic Claxton also had a nice outing, giving Brooklyn 14 points to go with 14 rebounds and 2 blocks. This was his team-high 24th double-double of the season.

The Kings were led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, who put up a team-high 24 points and absolutely mashed the glass to grab 21 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end.

Brooklyn shot the three-ball well through the contest, going 14-of-39 (35.9%) from deep to outpace Sacramento’s 31.7%. However, the Nets lost handily in the rebounding battle, in large part thanks to Sabonis, getting out-boarded 57-41.

“You can’t let the small dudes get some of those rebounds along the way,” said Vaughn. “So (Sabonis) is going to get some no matter what just because he’s bigger, stronger, and he has techniques to get the basketball. But the perimeter players can’t get those 2, 3, 4 and they add up.”

Also, hat tip to Tim Bontemps for this one: Sacramento held Brooklyn entirely scoreless in points in the paint and on the fastbreak, a feat that has not occurred since Oct. 2015.

Both teams erupted out the gates with a barrage of threes. Brooklyn began the contest 4-for-4 with trey-balls from Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and two from Bridges. Sacramento, meanwhile, went 2-for-4, from Harrison Barnes and rookie Keegan Murray. Sabonis also posted up mismatches for four early points, and the Nets sat ahead, 14-10, before the first timeout break. The Kings kept pushing though, going on a 7-0 run at the end of the quarter. Both teams finished the first knotted up at 24 apiece.

The Nets kept shooting the three-ball efficiently, making 7 of their 15 three-pointers halfway through the second quarter, while the Kings tapered off to just 5-of-18 from deep. Still, both teams played to a virtual standstill. Then, Sacramento closed out the quarter on an unopposed 13-0 run as the Nets couldn’t buy a bucket. The Kings finished the half ahead 54-41.

“They just played harder, getting stops and they were just scoring. Getting to the line,” said Bridges about the Kings’ 13-0 run. “But yeah, they just played harder than us.”

Though Sacramento got it going with a pair of threes from Fox in the third quarter, the Nets wouldn’t back down. Brooklyn’s ball movement started to take hold, and the Nets got a pair of dunks from Claxton and Watanabe off crisp passes. Suddenly, the Nets whittled the lead down to nine. Unfortunately, after former Net Kessler Edwards hit his second three of the night in his revenge game, the Kings were able to build back their double-digit advantage. Sacramento finished ahead 82-71.

Brooklyn got things back down to single digits thanks to a big three-pointer, assist, and pull-up two-pointer from Seth Curry. At just a seven-point deficit, the Nets elected to sub in Finney-Smith for Claxton and go small. That decision did not go over well, as Finney-Smith air-balled a 3-pointer that would’ve made it a 4-point game.

“Yeah, just thinking about producing points on that end,” said Vaughn about the decision to go small. “They were switching their pick-and-roll. We don’t post up Nic, so it’s not like we have an advantage to post him. So I thought being small, spacing in the floor—Dorian ended up getting a look that he didn’t make—was what’s going to give us a better opportunity to defend and also produce on the offensive end.”

Bridges wouldn’t let his team lose. First, he hit a tough baseline jumper. Then he hit another midrange shot while getting knocked to the floor, drawing the additional free-throw. Once again, it was Edwards who hurt the Nets, lacing a pass to Malik Monk in the corner to give Sacramento an 8-point lead with two minutes to spare. Still, the Nets had one more push. Dinwiddie made a layup while snaking around the rim and then drew contact in transition. Unfortunately, he went 1-for-2 from the line. Bridges, meanwhile, missed all four of his final shots. With just 44 seconds to spare, Fox got to the rim... and missed!.. but Sabonis cleaned up the miss and kicked to Malik Monk for three... who also missed! But then Fox grabbed yet another offensive rebound, effectively ending the game.

The Film Room

Jacque Vaughn has spent a lot of time discussing Nic Claxton’s subtle improvements to his game, and Thursday was a great example of the steps Clax has taken. While Nic hasn’t made any macro-level improvements—a three-point shot, for example, or even a significant uptick in his free-throw shooting—Claxton has simply gotten better at excelling within his role.

Claxton’s processing speed of how and when to set up dribble handoffs has improved this season. That’s something Vaughn has spoken complimentary of on numerous occasions. Nic just has a better feel for getting to his spots to hook up for DHOs with his guards, and he’s become much calmer and more controlled with his dribble to do so. Below is a great example.

Here, he dribbles from midcourt to the left wing to set up a side DHO with Spencer Dinwiddie to give his point guard a lane to drive down the middle. After handing the ball off, Claxton rolls hard (another skill he’s improved at over the years) to get open for the alley-oop pass from Dinwiddie. This may look like a simple, routine play, but that was not the case a couple of years ago for Claxton.

Finishing through contact is another skill that Claxton has sharpened this season. Nic was a fairly tentative finisher inside the painted area as recently as last year, a big reason it became tough for the Nets to keep him on the floor in huge moments. Now, thanks to the added strength (about 10 pounds, he said on Media Day) Nic gained in the offseason, he’s powering through his matchups to get deep positioning for buckets. No longer is he shying away from physicality; he’s accepting it with open arms and using it to his advantage.

We’ll go a level deeper. He’s taken a jump in even in the most finite areas of basketball. His knowledge of NBA spacing has improved, especially for this specific Nets group, which is something Vaughn touched on pregame.

“The timing of playing with new guys—He’s understanding the spacing now from being the loan big on the court most of the time,” said Vaughn. “What the spacing looks like, how you free up Mikal and Spencer. Is that early in the shot clock? Is that later getting into the dunker (spot)? Is that also surfacing from the corner and playing DHO and split game? So he is learning where to be at the right time with a new group.”

Here’s a great example. Brooklyn ignites some crispy ball movement, and when Yuta Watanabe drives the closeout hard, it pulls over Sabonis away from Nic to protect the rim. So, Nic repositions himself about a foot above the restricted circle to give Watanabe the passing window for the dump-off, and it results in the dunk.

Leaps don’t always have to be starry and transfixing—like we’re seeing with Mikal Bridges. Sometimes, it’s improvements at the little things, just getting better at what one already does, that counts just as much for players finding their groove. Nic is a great example of that.

‘Zero conversation’ on Ben Simmons shutting down

Jacque Vaughn once again dismissed speculation on whether Ben Simmons will be shut down.

Asked if he’s operating under the belief that Simmons will play again this season, Vaughn told beat writers: “Definitely operating under that belief. … There’s been zero conversation about him not playing. We’re expecting him to be back. We’re waiting for him to be back.”

Simmons has now missed 12 straight games with first knee, then back soreness, apparently related to his off-season back surgery last May.

Vaughn did say that Simmons has been doing some “on court work” in recent days.

“No setbacks,” Vaughn added. “He’s progressing. So, great to see him.

“He’s doing some work on court right now, so as more updates come, I’ll definitely give them to you guys, but good to see him back on court getting some work in.”

Vaughn added there’s no timetable for Simmons return to the court.

“There’s no timetable for him. The ultimate goal is we don’t have a recurrence. We get feedback every time he’s on the floor, what strengthening he has done on both his back and his knee.”

Milestone Watch

  • Brooklyn shot 33-for-80 (41.3%) from the field in Thursday’s loss to the Kings. It was the Nets’ 19th game this season taking 80 or fewer shots in a game, which trailed only Dallas and Philadelphia (23 each) entering the weekend.
  • Mikal Bridges is averaging 26.1 points per game on 50.0 percent shooting through 15 games with the Nets. In Nets history, only Kevin Durant and Bernard King scored that many points on 50.0 percent or better shooting in their first 15 games with the team.

Both from OptaAnalyst.

Standings Watch

The Nets (38-31) are barely hanging on to sixth and final guaranteed playoff spot in the East, as Barbara Barker. The loss dropped them to 1 ½ games behind the fifth-place Knicks who did not play Thursday night. They are now just 1 ½ games ahead of the seventh-place Miami Heat. The Nets currently hold the tiebreaker over the Heat.

Kessler Edwards ‘revenge game’

Just before the Nets dealt Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they also made what looked like a minor trade. They sent Kessler Edwards, their 2021 second round pick, and $2.58 million in cash considerations to Sacramento for the draft rights to David Michineau, a 6’4” French point guard who at 28 has limited opportunity to make the NBA. He will remain a stash. The point of the trade was to open a roster spot and clear the clutter of wings (that grew only worst after the big trades.) It also gave Edwards more of a chance to get minutes and with a team closer to his California home.

While the Nets will not encounter either Irving or Durant until next season, last night was a “revenge game” for Edwards and he played well. In 24 minutes, he scored 10 points, going 4-of-6 overall, 2-of-4 from deep. “I’ve been looking forward to this game since I got traded,” said Edwards.

“It feels great, it feels great,” Edwards later told NBC Sports California on “Kings Postgame Live”. “I was kind of nervous throughout the game, it was close the whole time but I’m glad that my coaches trusted me with that time down the stretch and we were able to pull it out.

“I just see how this team works, how much of a winning culture they have,” Edwards told reporters postgame. “So I was able to pick up on that and I think when I get out there, it rubs off on me.”

Jacque Vaughn talked about Edwards performance post-game.

“Proud of him. Like I told him when he left us, I’ll always be pulling for him,” said Vaughn about his former player. “Incredible human being and good to see him have success. He’s a guy that worked on his game. Unfortunately, didn’t work out for us. Mike (Brown)’s a hell of a coach for him to learn and use him. He’s knocking down shots. Defensively, he’s playing well. Pulling for him.”

What’s next

The Nets host the Denver Nuggets for a matinee game at the Barclays Center on Sunday. Coverage begins at 3:30 PM EST on the YES Network.

For a different perspective on tonight’s game, head to Sactown Royalty, our Kings’ sister site.