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Orlando Magic take care of Brooklyn Nets, 119-106, despite Mikal Bridges 44

Brooklyn Nets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets were coming off an “A+” in their biggest test of the season when they rolled into Orlando to face the Magic on Sunday night. That test they passed with flying colors was a duel with the Miami Heat, a duel that had major, layered implications for Brooklyn. Forget the fact that the winner of would climb above play-in position, if just for a moment. The Nets were riding a five-game losing streak, and were desperate for some morsel of positivity that extended beyond just the standings.

Well nothing could have been more positive than the way they manhandled the Heat on Saturday night, riding a dominant second half to comfortable victory. Mission accomplished.

Sunday's contest, then, represented a different sort of look in the mirror for Brooklyn. It’s easy to get up for a game against a playoff team with such obvious pressure coming from the coaches, fans, and media, in front of a packed Miami-Dade Arena, no less. What would they do the morning after, in sleepy Orlando? And make no mistake, it’s not the Magic themselves that are sleepy; in fact, their 27-23 record over their last 50 games entering Sunday is the same as the Nets. As Paolo Banchero tweeted...

Regardless, the Orlando Magic could not be slept on, and they showed the Nets why on Sunday, cruising up and down the court for the game’s final three quarters, en route to handing the Brooklyn Nets a rough loss that short-circuited the momentum they had built in Miami the previous night. Final score: Orlando 119, Brooklyn 106.

The Nets have now lost six of their last seven.

The Brooklyn Nets, aside from Mikal Bridges’ 44 points, played the sort of sleepy first half you might expect but hope to avoid on the second half of an all-road back-to-back. Bridges was unstoppable to start the game, specifically in the first quarter, where he poured in 19 of his 22 first-half points on his usual array of deep balls and pull-ups:

“I think his approach was very aggressive tonight, from the beginning of the game. We needed that; that kept us in the game early,” said Jacque Vaughn when asked about his burgeoning star’s hot start.

Thankfully for Brooklyn, the Orlando Magic played just as sleepily in the first quarter, as if they, too, were coming off a game the previous night, rather than the two days of rest they had enjoyed. The score after the first 12 minutes was 25-24, Brooklyn, with each team sporting a field-goal percentage in the low 40s.

Despite holding a lead, Vaughn was less than thrilled with his team’s overall performance: “First quarter, we were able to hang around a little bit. I don’t think our juice was great, but we were okay. We were still feeling ourselves out a little bit in the ring.”

In the second quarter, however, Brooklyn really looked like a team playing their second game in as many nights, mostly because their opponent didn't. Vaughn tried inject some life into his team by deviating from his normal rotation - Patty Mills made his first appearance since March 9, and Cam Thomas made his first appearance since the previous Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps their minutes were a response to the status of Edmond Sumner, who played well in Saturday’s blowout of Miami, but was ruled out prior to this one with a hip injury, or Royce O’Neale, who missed the game with left knee soreness or Seth Curry, out for personal reasons.

Regardless, neither guard did much to prevent a quarter that wound up in favor of Orlando by a score of 36-26. Mills and Thomas did combine for 12 points, but took 13 shots to get there while providing little resistance on the other end. Brooklyn’s problems, however, extended far beyond them. Spencer Dinwiddie had himself a particularly rough half, missing all six of his shot attempts. His fellow ex-Maverick, Dorian Finney-Smith, wasn’t far behind, missing all five of his. All in all, Nets not named Bridges shot just 12-36 in the first half, including a putrid 1-12 from three.

Considering all that offensive wreckage, a 60-51 halftime deficit seemed far from the worst-case scenario for the Nets. Unfortunately, it didn’t have to be.

Once the Orlando Magic delivered the first punch of the second half, that was about it. The teams traded mini-runs from there on out, with the Nets occasionally sniffing a single-digit deficit, and other times touching a 20-point hole. It was only ever one step back, one step forward once the Magic built a sufficient head-start.

On the Brooklyn side, the first half felt much like the second half. Bridges kept scoring, only getting bolder with his shot selection as the game went on:

Bridges would finish with a sparkling 44 points on 22 shots, likely the most impressive game he’s played as a Net. Making all 12 of his free throws and six of his nine 3-point attempts boosted his efficiency, especially remarkable on a night where none of his teammates had the required juice on their shots.

He was rather straightforward in his assessment of his scoring explosion: “I was just making shots, just trying to get to my spots.” When asked about nearing his career-high, Bridges acknowledged that he saw the Jumbotron late in the game, but added “I really don’t care. I was just trying to win. I didn’t care at that point.”

Bridges and his fellow twin, Cam Johnson, agreed on one simple reason that Brooklyn couldn’t get the job done, despite Bridges’ outburst: effort.

“They just played harder than us.” - Mikal Bridges

“We were a step behind a little bit, and that’s probably the reason we lost.” - Cam Johnson

Of course, Vaughn wasn’t ready to list any fatigue-related excuses, despite the perceived disparity in effort from his players, and the loss coming on a back-to-back that featured an 8:00 p.m. start followed by a 6:00 p.m. start with a plane ride in between: “I’m not an excuse guy. Guys gave what they had tonight across the board.” Brooklyn’s head coach instead opted to chalk this one up as a “learning experience” vowing that the team will be “more prepared” for their next, final back-to-back of the season.

Indeed aside from Bridges, the Nets shot 24-for-69 (34.8%) from the field, including 2-for-26 (7.7%) on three-pointers.

Yes, the 2-of-26 3-point shooting performance that non-Bridges Nets put up was particularly ugly. But defensively, Brooklyn didn’t play well either, getting outperformed in the areas you may expect a tired team to suffer in: attention to detail and physicality. Far too many moments of hope were curb-stomped by an easy bucket like this to ever truly take the Nets’ comeback hopes seriously:

Even when Brooklyn was mentally locked in, though, they were physically outmatched. Not necessarily on the glass, where they did finish with 15 offensive rebounds to Orlando’s nine, continuing a positive trend for a fairly undersized group. No, the signs of fatigue and general poor performance showed up when simply trying to guard the ball. Magician after Magician (right?) strode into the lane for shot attempts; that was ultimately too much to overcome, despite Nic Claxton recording four impressive blocks. Cleaning the Glass tracked Orlando as taking a whopping 43% of their total attempts at the rim, an 89th percentile number which doesn’t even include the many floaters that Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz cashed in.

All in all, it was a major comedown from the epic high of Brooklyn’s victory in Miami on Saturday night. If there is a positive, besides the incendiary performance of Bridges, it’s that no starter other than him touched 30 minutes, and that group should be well rested for their next contest on Wednesday.

Vaughn wound up benching those starters with about four minutes to go and Brooklyn trailing by 13 points. On another night, it may have seemed a bit premature to pull the plug there. Crazier things have happened. But on Sunday in Orlando, Vaughn’s decision felt merciful. A full 180 from the previous night, Brooklyn’s second half vs. the Magic was spent circling the drain, waiting to be flushed once and for all. Some nights, you just don’t have it, and the Nets certainly didn’t on Sunday.

Milestone Watch

  • Mikal Bridges, unlike the Brooklyn Nets as a whole, had a day to remember. His 12-of-12 performance from the line represents career-highs in both makes and attempts. So do his six 3-point makes. He is now averaging 26.8 points on shooting splits of 50/41/91 in 20 games with Brooklyn, after averaging 17.2 points on splits of 46/39/90 in Phoenix.
  • His 44 points are the second-highest total of his career, trailing only the 45 he scored in his third game as a Net. However, his 19-point first quarter did tie a career-best, matched only by his first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets on March 5th. Asked if he knew that he was one point off his career high, Bridges intimated he did but said it didn’t matter; his team lost
  • Day’Ron Sharpe recorded another five offensive boards, bringing him to 21 over his last four games (his reinsertion into the Nets rotation). No player in the league has more offensive boards than Sharpe in that timeframe. Nobody can say his strengths aren’t pronounced.

Standings Watch

Brooklyn remains in the six seed, just outside the play-in. The Nets and Heat now have identical records (40-35) with seven games left. However, after sweeping the Heat, the Nets hold the tiebreaker. The Nets are now two games behind the Knicks for the five seed. The Knicks hold the tiebreaker.

Moses Brown debut

With one day left on his first 10-day contract, Moses Brown finally got some action. The 7’2” Brown, a Queens native, played three minutes, posting a steal and a turnover. Brown has now played for seven NBA teams.

The Nets can choose to sign him to another 10-day, replace him with another free agent, convert one of their two-ways — David Duke Jr. or Dru Smith — to a standard deal, or leave a roster spot open. Post-season rosters are finalized on April 10, the day after the regular season ends.

Jacque Vaughn said the Nets will reconvene on their return home to decided what to do.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s Next?

Brooklyn remains in their spot as the Eastern conference’s six-seed, despite having an identical record to the Miami Heat (Brooklyn owns the tiebreaker). All systems, if they weren’t already, are go. The Nets’ next chance to get a win will be back at Barclays Center on Wednesday night, when they face the Houston Rockets. Tip is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.

For a different perspective, head over to Orlando Pinstriped Post, our SB Nation sister site covering the Orlando Magic.