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Long Island Nets survive Cleveland Charge 111-107, advance to G-League semis

The Long Island Nets nearly blew a 26-point, second-half lead. But they didn’t, and now they're three wins away from a championship.

2023 NBA G League Playoffs - Cleveland Charge v Long Island Nets Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

The Long Island Nets finished the G League regular season with East’s best record at 23-9, and by far its best defense. But those broad strokes don’t paint the whole picture for Long Island; they faltered down the stretch, finishing 1-6 over their last seven games, including dropping a pair to their quarterfinal opponent, the Cleveland Charge.

Despite their lower seed, the Charge arrived in Nassau Coliseum the much hotter team, finishing their regular season on a four-game winning streak that carried over to the first round of the playoffs, where they defeated the Maine Celtics to earn another contest with Long Island. A single-game elimination date, at that. With just 48 minutes to decide an Eastern conference semi-finalist, and considering each squad’s recent play, the Nets’ dominant regular season felt irrelevant.

Luckily for Long Island, it wasn't. By the second quarter, they were once again playing like the G-League’s best team, and it was now their end-of-season slump that was a distant memory. After taking a 64-45 lead into the halftime break, the Nets rode that momentum all the way home, despite a late push from the opposition, dispatching the Cleveland Charge by a score of 111-107 to coast into the Eastern conference finals.

The Cleveland Charge entered Friday’s action after nothing a big playoff win already, defeating the Maine Celtics on Wednesday. Their electrifying point guard, Sharife Cooper had 23 points and 11 assists, many of them dished to Sam Merrill and Dylan Windler, two wings with NBA experience. That duo finished a combined 11-19 from deep, though Windler suffered an injury that would sideline him in Long Island.

The Charge would rely on Isaiah Mobley, older brother of Evan, in his absence. And he delivered to start the game, scoring 11 of Cleveland’s first 15 points, displaying a variety of post-finishes and soft touch. Mobley would finish as Cleveland’s leading scorer, pouring in 34 points by game’s end.

But Long Island came out ready for playoff intensity, as head coach Ronnie Burrell, who was named the G-League’s Coach of the Year on Friday, predicted before the game: “I think we’ll be prepared for playoff-intensity basketball. Individually, some guys might be a little bit shocked by the pace or intensity of it, but that’s the best part of being a professional athlete.”

And though Long Island didn’t separate right away, any early jitters didn’t show; the Nets held a 27-25 lead after 12 minutes of play. Then, the floodgates opened.

Lineups featuring three or four guards at a time flew all around the court, generating turnovers and pushing the pace. David Duke Jr. and Dru Smith, both of considerable NBA experience, took turns containing Sharife Cooper, who finished the first half with just four points, three assists, and zero made field goals. Unsurprisingly, a Long Island that finished second in the league in steals did not look fun to play against:

That play sums up much of how the second quarter went: ball-pressure, turnovers, and fruitful fast-breaks. The Nets won the period by a score of 37-20, taking a 19-point lead into the half-time break, fueled in part by a 9-0 edge in fast-break points.

Burrell credited the quarter-long run to the defensive intensity picking up: “That’s all it is,” later adding that “that guard-heavy unit is meant to fly around and kind of wreak havoc and that’s what they did tonight.”

The pace slowed in the second half, where Long Island scored just 47 points over the game’s final 24 minutes. Cleveland stopped turning the ball over - just one cough-up in the second half - and tightened up on defense. After the Nets started the third quarter on a 7-0 run to take a 26-point lead, the Charge spent the rest of the contest whittling the margin down, eventually making it a 100-99 Long Island lead with three minutes to go. But the Nets generated just enough offense down the stretch to stave off Cleveland, including this step-back from Chris Chiozza:

Burrell described Chiozza’s end-of-game play succinctly: “That’s the most important reason that he is here, because he’s a veteran player and a smart player. At the end of the game the ball is in his hand; he makes the decisions.”

Dru Smith took over as Long Island’s secondary ball-handler behind Chiozza, and he worked inside the arc, making the right decisions all game-long. Despite coming off the bench, Smith played 37 minutes, second-highest on the team behind Chiozza, and finished with zero turnovers.

Burrell called the team “lucky” to have Smith, whom he described as “another version” of the smart, steady ball-handler Chiozza is: “I have confidence in him, all those guys that make decisions at the end of the game.”

Despite the close win, though, it wasn’t all roses from the perspective of the Coach of the Year. Burrell’s team did, after all, nearly blow a 26-point, second-half lead: “[Cleveland] beat multiple teams this year that way, we knew that, still for some reason didn’t have the intensity at the end of the game that we needed to have. So we’ll talk about that, we gotta find some kind of killer instinct to want to put opponents away when we play that well.”

Ultimately, outside shooting numbers decided this one, as the Cleveland Charge never came up with the big shot. Sam Merrill, who made six 3-pointers on Wednesday, floundered for a 1-10 mark on Friday. His teammates hardly outdid him. Yes, the Nets were flying around the court on defense, but the Charge missed open ones too, finishing a paltry 7-31 from deep, just 22.5%.

Long Island didn’t exactly set the roof on fire either, but their 33% 3-point success rate was enough to get the job done, largely due to their efficiency inside the arc. They made 30 of their 50 twos, good for 60%, equivalent to that golden threshold of 40% from three, on a points-per-shot basis. And though the 6’8” RaiQuan Gray did make 10 of his 16 2-pointers, and led the Nets with 25 total points, it wasn’t just big men finishing layups.

The guard trio of Smith, David Duke Jr., and Jordan Bowden converted 16 of their 24 attempts inside the arc, hitting contested jumpers, cutting backdoor for easy ones, or just plain old one-on-one scoring:

Nets front office on hand.

Sean Marks as well as some members of the Nets front office, including director of basketball operations, Ryan Gisriel, and senior director of cap and strategy, Matt Tellem, had good views of the game and afterwards stood on line to congratulate Long Island players as they headed to the locker room.

What’s next?

Long Island has a date with the Delaware Blue Coats, the Philadelphia 76ers G-League affiliate. The Blue Coats knocked Long Island out of the playoffs last year before advancing to the G-League championship, where they ultimately fell to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in a two-game sweep.

The Nets will host the winner-take-all conference championship game in Long Island, with tip-off scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET on Sunday night. The game will be telecast on ESPN U.