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Brooklyn Nets lose frustrating game to Cleveland Cavaliers, 115-109

Donovan Mitchell’s star-power and a couple of brutal offensive stretches were just too much for Brooklyn to overcome

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Tuesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers actually started off on the right foot for the Brooklyn Nets. They took a 30-23 lead after the first 12 minutes of the contest, propelled by an active defense, featuring frequent trapping of ball-screens, a tactic they’ve hardly deployed this season, trapping ball-screens:

They ran, they dunked, they scored 16 of their first 21 points in the paint, and it felt like they were going to be able to hang with the conference’s four-seed, to prove that Cleveland shouldn’t, in fact, want to face them in the playoffs. The final three quarters, however, may have confirmed Cleveland’s biases. The Cavs sure did figure out that trap, for one:

Then, Donovan Mitchell started playing like the superstar he is, and Brooklyn’s last-gasp effort fell short. This one never felt quite as in reach in the fourth quarter as the final score of 115-109 would indicate, as the Nets lost their fourth in a row.

J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland’s head coach, said the Cavs’ early issues were more about their offense than the Nets defense.

“It just took us a minute to get into the game,” Bickerstaff said. “Once we started moving the ball, the game became simple offensively for us and everybody got involved. I thought we played Cavaliers basketball. I think that’s the way we’ve got to play.”

Brooklyn never recovered from a slow start to the second quarter that saw them score just six points in six minutes. Cleveland opened the period on a 20-6 run, taking a 43-36 lead, and they never looked back.

For as amazing as Mikal Bridges’ start to his Nets career has been, he is not a star quite yet. The majority of the possessions he controls end with pull-up jumpers inside the arc, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, that doesn’t strike fear in the heart of defenses, unless you’re Kevin Durant. KD spoiled Nets fans, torching every defender he faced with said pull-ups. Bridges, meanwhile, is good, maybe great, at nailing those shots, but he’s not quite elite, and that’s what your primary ball-handler needs to be if that’s his favorite shot.

So in that second quarter, which started with Spencer Dinwiddie on the bench, Bridges made a couple pull-ups and missed a couple. But more importantly, there was no offensive flow to speak of. Cleveland’s defense was not contracting on paint touches and expanding with frantic closeouts, not the ball nor the players were hopping. Rather, fans at the Barclays were treated to middling pick-and-rolls, conducted by an average passer with three guys standing around the arc. Bridges has exceeded all expectations in his brief time as a Net, but heaping so much offensive responsibility on him, so quickly, has had its pitfalls. He finished with 18 points on 21 shots, and produced one assist to two turnovers.

Jacque Vaughn was succinct in his analysis of Brooklyn’s offense in his post-game presser, saying “I thought we got a little stagnant with the basketball.”

Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell took over the game, producing 31 points and multiple major highlights (pray for Yuta Watanabe):

The Nets, on the back of Dinwiddie, who posted 19 points and 11 assists, stayed within reach by half-time, only trailing by 6. But Cleveland opened the third quarter with another huge run, this one 23-5, and that was effectively it for the Nets.

Mikal Bridges termed those rough spots for Brooklyn “lapses” and admitted that they were “tough” to overcome, adding “I think we just got to come out, whatever quarter it is, and stay with the same intensity the whole game.”

Vaughn also stressed the importance of “putting four quarters together. It always seems there’s one quarter that punches us in the gut a little bit. So we have to be able to sustain through all those runs.” Of course, in Tuesday’s loss, there was not one, but two rough periods: Brooklyn was outscored 71-48 over the second and third quarters.

There were some bright spots: Day’Ron Sharpe played what was probably his best game as a Net, finishing with a 20 point, 11 rebound double-double. His defense wasn’t bad, either:

Eight of his boards were on the offensive end, and Brooklyn won his minutes by a whopping 27 points. Overall, they out-rebounded their larger foe by a total of 49-34, which included 19 offensive boards.

Jacque Vaughn praised his sophomore big-man’s hustle post-game: “I thought Day’Ron did an excellent job of going after rebounds tonight. So give him credit for being ready, being a professional, and stepping up when his number is called.”

Sharpe, meanwhile, shared a pretty blunt perspective after the loss, saying “I’m just a great offensive rebounder, I would say.” However, he was just as confused as anybody by his odd stat-line, where only three of his 11 boards were defensive ones: “On the defensive side, it’s like the ball don’t be near me, I don’t know why.”

But despite getting beaten on the glass, the Cavaliers’ size showed up in other ways: Cleaning the Glass tracked Brooklyn as shooting just 51.5% at the rim on Tuesday night, good for a 7th percentile mark when compared to the league average. Ugh. Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen were, as they often are, everywhere. On a night when the Nets made just nine of their 33 long-range attempts, that was nowhere near good enough.

Jacque Vaughn said that he “thought we got to the rim at a good clip,” which Brooklyn did, but it doesn’t matter much if you don’t make ‘em.

It’s tempting to blame shooting variance if you just look at the box score. Hey, Cleveland shot 48% from deep and Brooklyn shot 27%. What can you do? But that ignores context that had consistently been in Brooklyn’s favor over the past few seasons: star-power.

Everything the Nets did on defense was determined by their fear of Donovan Mitchell, and to a lesser extent, Darius Garland. They initially trapped the latter on ball-screens, all five defenders bee-lined for the paint whenever the former approached. This is how Brooklyn treated just about every Cavalier that wasn't Garland or Mitchell:

No, Cleveland’s hot shooting wasn’t random; rather, Brooklyn made a bet that they lost.

Meanwhile, their own cold shooting kept up an unfortunate trend - the Nets are now shooting under 32% from deep during this four-game losing streak.

But Vaughn doesn’t think that discrepancy reflects poorly on Brooklyn’s quality of play: “I think the biggest difference in the game is, they made shots, we missed shots.” He would later add that “we want the looks. I think you gain confidence by making some of those looks.”

Bridges kept it rather simple in his analysis: “Just gotta keep shooting them. That’s a part of life, you miss some. Just gotta keep shooting them.”

To add insult to injury, Caris LeVert hit a big, momentum-shifting three after Brooklyn had made a run at the end of the third, and did this:

It’s one thing to adjust to and accept star-less basketball as the new normal, but having former, beloved Nets come back to the Barclays and dance on the ashes of the ashes of what they built? Well...that’s tough to swallow, but it’s just as understandable. As for Allen, he went about his business in his usual, reserved manner, but his 12 points, 14 boards and two blocks certainly didn’t make Nets fans feel any better.

The Brooklyn Nets followed 12 decent opening minutes with 36 minutes of basketball that ranged from frustrating to unwatchable. Long stretches of one point-per-minute will produce that feeling. No matter how you felt watching it, though, it resulted in Brooklyn’s fourth-straight loss, and was a reminder of all that is no more in the borough: offensive stars, and a couple of hometown heroes.

Milestone watch

  • Not much to speak of after this loss, besides Day’Ron Sharpe’s standout performance. The UNC product tied his career-high with 20 points, and this was his second career 20/10 game, following Brooklyn’s bench-heavy win in Indiana earlier this season.

He was also the third Nets player to record 20+ points, 10+ rebounds and eight or more offensive boards in a game off the bench in franchise history:

—Day’Ron Sharpe - tonight vs. Cleveland

—Brook Lopez - January 30, 2015 vs. Toronto (OT)

—Jayson Williams - February 6, 1997 vs. Indiana

Remembering Willis Reed

While many of the obituaries of Knick great Willis Reed, Reed was also, in order, head coach, GM and vice president of basketball operations for the Nets, working in New Jersey from 1988 through 2004. He drafted Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, traded for Drazen Petrovic and hired Chuck Daly as coach.

Jacque Vaughn spoke about Reed pre-game.

“No relationship personally. He’s been a part of our Nets family and he was a head coach for for New Jersey at one point and and also a GM for our franchise. And so condolences to the family. The NBA we’ve lost a giant in the game.”

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next

We’re gonna do this all over again on Thursday night, when the Nets once again host the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. Tip is scheduled for just after 7:30 PM EST on YES Network.

For a different perspective on today’s game, head to Fear the Sword, our Cavaliers sister site.