Make no mistake, the Brooklyn Nets were hungry entering their Friday night tilt with the Atlanta Hawks. Sure, they were coming off a win, but a skin-of-their-teeth performance against the Houston Rockets, the undisputed heavyweight loser of the NBA season, didn’t inspire a ton of confidence. And crazier things have happened than a team blowing a two-game lead over two weeks, the lead Brooklyn has over Miami to stay out of the play-in tournament.
But the stakes appeared to be much higher for the Atlanta Hawks. They would enter and leave the Barclays Center smack-dab in the middle of play-in position no matter what, but a win would do wonders in bumping them up to the 7/8 bracket, rather than the 9/10. It seemed unlikely that the Nets could lolly-gag their way to a win in this one.
They didn’t. They earned it instead, dominating yet another third quarter after a fairly even start to this one. Mikal Bridges was unstoppable, Brooklyn couldn’t miss from three, and Atlanta, like they’ve done far too often since their Eastern Conference Finals run in 2021, fell asleep at the wrong time. Final score: Nets 124, Atlanta 107.
The defensive intensity required of Brooklyn in this one was present to start. Initially, the Hawks could not figure out the switching scheme that the Nets were executing, jumping ball-handlers with Nic Claxton and stifling the flow of Atlanta’s offense:
I really like the BKN switching early on. Disguising the switches just a bit, dragging ATL into slow-moving isolations, stunting their offensive flow. Really good start on that end: pic.twitter.com/5bc4szQh1A— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) March 31, 2023
That lasted all of six minutes, where the Hawks scored just six points to match. Then, Brooklyn stopped getting stops, and, even though Atlanta wasn’t ripping the twine from deep, shooting just 4-of-22 from distance in the first half, they were a step ahead of the Nets on that end. Particularly so in the paint. The Hawks finished the first 24 minutes with 12 offensive boards to Brooklyn’s five. They made 11 of their 13 first-half free-throw attempts, the Nets missed their sole pair.
It didn’t matter - or more accurately, it didn’t kill Atlanta - that Trae Young was a non-factor in the first half, finishing with just two points and an on-court differential of minus-20. His backcourt partner, Dejounte Murray, picked up the slack, hitting middy after middy on his way to 15 first-half points. Noted Nets-killer Bogdan Bogdanović added seven points, and blossoming Nets-killer Onyeka Okongwu had ten points and three offensive boards.
“Well, I thought we were pretty lucky, actually, to even be winning at halftime,” said Jacque Vaughn postgame. “Just, the amount of shots that they had from rebounding.”
For much of the game’s first half, the Brooklyn Nets just did not look like the better or more energized team. They didn't look awful by any stretch, particularly when shooting the ball (9-19 from deep), but better than Atlanta? No, not really. Well, except for Mikal Bridges.
Bridges poured in 20 points, mainly on jumpers that, by this point, the whole building expected to drop. The offense revolved around him; most offensive possessions involved Trae Young’s man or Clint Capela’s man screening for him, and letting him cook. Atlanta started the game by generously granting the Nets these switches, which proved to be a cat Quin Snyder and his staff could not put back in the bag. Bridges caught a rhythm, and it was too late for defenders and spectators alike, as he rained down hellfire on the whole arena. Even when he wasn't scoring, the Hawks couldn’t guard him:
Bridges 20 first-half points turned into 42 for the game, on a crisp 16-of-24 shooting. Bridges sprinkled in five 3-pointers on eight attempts, as well as some nice drives to the rim. I mean, he was even getting these to fall...
Bridges credited his performance to “just staying aggressive, teammates finding me, coaches drawing up nice plays.” You know, the usual.
On the back of his offensive output, Brooklyn turned a six-point, second-quarter deficit into a 59-55 lead at half-time and never looked back; the fire within Bridges turned out to be contagious.
Hot shooting propelled the Nets to yet another dominant third quarter in the month of March, as what was initially a tight contest turned into a 22-point lead before the final period commenced. Brooklyn outscored Atlanta 42-24 in the third quarter, turning the Barclays Center into a good, old-fashioned, Friday night party. They got out and ran in transition, Nic Claxton threw down a couple dunks, and the fourth quarter turned out to be largely cosmetic:
But perhaps we should have seen it coming, after the Richard Jefferson Show at half-time:
Nobody involved with the Nets’ organization in any capacity could miss Friday night: 15-of-33 from deep, and 56% from the field overall. Spencer Dinwiddie finished with 12 assists, and Nic Claxton finished with a pristine stat-line of 14/12/5 on 6-of-7 shooting and two blocks.
Post-game, Vaughn described the difference between halves as the Nets slowing down, taking care of their mistakes and valuing possessions: “I think overall we really made an adjustment of not giving up offensive rebounds. So that was a big key. I think we had 12 that we gave up in the first half. So that was huge. Then we took care of the basketball. So I think only four turnovers in the second half allowed us to really get downhill, make threes, and the rim looked pretty, pretty big tonight.”
Bridges echoed his head coach’s opinion, saying that “controlling their offensive rebounds” was the biggest reason for the second-half turnaround, later adding “We got stops and we got out.” Pretty much.
It’s hard to imagine any Net (or fan) walking out of the Barclays Center disappointed after Friday night’s win. A competitive, entertaining first-half turned into a second-half romp, and Brooklyn took one more step towards avoiding the dreaded play-in tournament. A successful night indeed.
Personally, for Bridges, the game was another milestone for his development.
“I knew I was going to keep going. There was no timetable, no rush.”
Later he added that “in the back of my head, it was always ‘one day.’”
Fan Appreciation Night
The official fan appreciation night isn’t till the last home game of the season, but Mikal Bridges offered his own fan appreciation comments last night when asked about Brooklyn Brigade-led chants of “MVP” in the fourth quarter.
“It’s crazy. I obviously wasn’t expecting that,” Bridges said post-game. “It’s just a lot of love man. That’s the biggest thing I take away from being here is just the love from the city and the fans. Even when I’m home or walking around people are just big Nets fans and showing love. It’s just a blessing.
“They made me feel so welcome when I was pretty upset about getting traded from Phoenix because of all my friends and all my teammates and the staff... They made me just be so into Brooklyn right away just from the love they’ve been showing, so I thank them a lot.”
- Dorian Finney-Smith’s 19 points, on 4-of-6 from deep no less, represented his highest point total as a Net.
- The 42 points from Mikal Bridges marked the third 40-point game of his career, all with Brooklyn. In addition, he scored 20-plus in each half, the eighth and ninth such halves of his career. Seven of those have come in the month of March; eight as a Net in total.
- Speaking of March, Mikal Bridges’ total of 461 points in the year’s third month is the most points any Net has ever scored in the month of March, surpassing John Williamson’s 436 in 1978. It’s also the second highest all-time for the Nets franchise. Kevin Durant scored 471 last November. Bridges is now averaging 20.1 points for the season.
- The Nets recorded 31 assists on Friday, representing their second straight game with 30-plus assists, and the third in their last four. Brooklyn handed out 30+ assists just once in their first 18 games after the trade deadline. The ball is officially hopping in the borough.
- Spencer Dinwiddie’s 12 assists on Friday brought his total to 146 in the month of March, the most in the NBA over the month, and the most in any month by a Net since Deron Williams dropped 154 dimes in January of 2012.
The East playoff picture, particularly the five, six and seven seeds, increasingly looks like it won’t change before April 9, the end of the regular season. The Knicks, Nets and Heat look set. The Knicks, behind 46 points by Jalen Brunson, defeated the Cavaliers in Cleveland Friday. New York is now 2 1⁄2 games ahead of Brooklyn who have only five games left to make up the distance. Should the Nets and Knicks wind up with the same record, the determinant would not be the first tiebreaker, match-up numbers. The teams broke even, 2-2, for the season. Next up is division record. If Nets beat Sixers in the final game of the season, they’ll tie for division record at 8-8. Then it’s down to conference record. The Knicks are currently up two games there. Both teams have three conference games left. In the race to avoid the play-in, the Nets are two games ahead of the Heat and the Nets hold the tiebreaker in that match-up.
So bottom line, it looks like the Nets will not have to endure the play-in tournament but instead will go directly to the playoffs and a match-up with the 76ers.
Zach Lowe knows
In his weekly feature Friday, Lowe’s 10 things, Zach Lowe went on at length about Mikal Bridges potential:
The Brooklyn Nets are 8-13 since the trade deadline, but Mikal Bridges averaging 27 points on almost 50/40/90 shooting is a huge win for Brooklyn regardless of the record. Bridges is running almost 20 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions — nine times his career rate with the Phoenix Suns. Bridges approached that number over his final weeks in Phoenix — with Chris Paul and Devin Booker injured — but he wasn’t scoring with quite this combination of volume and efficiency. This is pretty rare air.
Bridges was part of the “middy committee” in Phoenix, and he’s eating there even more in Brooklyn; almost half his attempts have come from the midrange — one of the highest shares in the league...
Getting into the teeth of the defense will reveal more profitable passes, and that is the (big) next step for Bridges. He has been unabashedly score-first in Brooklyn. That’s fine. Let Bridges stretch himself now. This is an ad hoc roster, the remains of a failed superteam; there is no proven No. 1 option, and not much cohesive identity.
Bridges has dished assists on just 6.9% of his pick-and-rolls with Brooklyn — a mark that would rank 165th for the season among 170 ball handlers who have run at least 200 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
But like others, he wonders if Bridges is a first option ... despite a lot of weighty evidence in support of the notion...
Bridges has proved a smart, adaptable player; with more reps, he’ll see more reads and then start anticipating them. He’ll never be a big assists guy. (He’s averaging 2.7 as a Net, and 2.3 for his career.) He’s 26, and doesn’t profile as the No. 1 ball handler on a great team.
But imagine Bridges channeling this experience — this aggression and responsibility — into a secondary ballhandling role? An elite defender averaging, say, 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on efficient shooting — that’s basically a Jaylen Brown-level player, right? Brown is in the All-NBA conversation now. Can Bridges get there?
Bridges has never been an All-Star, but there is a precedent for a player who doesn’t make the All-Star team, but then at season’s end gets rewarded with an All-NBA slot: The Nets’ Drazen Petrovic in 1993.
The Brooklyn Nets will play host to the Utah Jazz on Sunday afternoon, with tip scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.
For another perspective on Friday night’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, visit our sister site, Peachtree Hoops.
- Box Score: Brooklyn Nets 124, Atlanta Hawks 107 - NBA
- Highlights: Brooklyn Nets 124, Atlanta Hawks 107 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Mikal Bridges vs. Hawks / 42 PTS (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Highlights: Nic Claxton vs. Hawks / 14 PTS, 12 REB (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Mikal Bridges discusses big night in Nets’ win over Hawks (Video) - Meghan Triplett - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn recaps Nets’ victory over Hawks (Video) - YES Network
- Mikal Bridges recaps Brooklyn’s victory over Hawks (Video) - YES Network
- Joe Harris on Nets’ win over Hawks (Video) - YES Network
- Dorian Finney-Smith on his performance against Atlanta (Video) - YES Network
- Bridges has 42, Nets rout Hawks to boost lead for No. 6 seed - Brian Mahoney - AP
- Mikal Bridges puts up 42 as Nets down Hawks - Reuters
- Mikal Bridges pours in 42 points as Nets rally for critical win over Hawks - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie gets redemption by shutting down Hawks’ Trae Young - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- LaMarcus Aldridge channels Tom Brady in his second NBA retirement - Noah Concordia - New York Post
- Nets’ Mikal Bridges on pace for 83 games, and GM says it’s ‘refreshing’ - Nick Friedell - ESPN
- Nets pull away in second half, rout Hawks - Denis P. Gorman - Newsday
- Cam Johnson expects more from Nets - Denis P. Gorman - Newsday
- Mikal Bridges explodes for 42 points, Nets beat Hawks for second straight win - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Ex-Jazz coach Quin Snyder praises Royce O’Neale’s versatility for Nets - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- LaMarcus Aldridge, 7-time NBA All-Star, retiring after 16 seasons - Alex Schiffer & Jason Quick - The Athletic
- LaMarcus Aldridge retires for second time - ESPN
- Key To Figuring Out Inconsistencies With New-Look Nets Boils Down To… - Steve Lichtenstein - Steve’s Newsletter
- 3 key takeaways from Nets’ blowout win over Hawks - Erik Slater - Clutch Points
- Hawks fade in road loss to Nets - Lauren Williams - Atlanta Journal-Constitution