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Nets bench makes history, but Bucks win in the end, 118-113

Jacque Vaughn rests starters, goes deep into his roster and almost pull off an upset.

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Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach, once said a moral victory is like kissing your sister — that is not very satisfying, but there were still plenty of positives for Jacque Vaughn’s squad Thursday in their 118-113 loss at FiServ Forum.

While the Bucks, without Giannis Antetokounmpo, won their 19th in 20 games. the Nets once again showed fight, led by their bench, who scored 98 points, the most any NBA bench has scored since the league began tracking the stat in 1971.

Brooklyn went down by 22 early with a skeleton squad missing five rotation players, then Vaughn went deep into his roster and things started to work. With the team’s two two-ways, Dru Smith and David Duke Jr., a big part of their second half charge, Brooklyn slowly crept back from a 17-point halftime deficit, ultimately getting the lead down to two points on a Cam Thomas runner with 32 seconds left, then to three on a Patty Mills shot from deep with 13.7 left.

Mills was the Nets high scorer with 23 points followed by Thomas with 21. While Mills points were spread out over the second half, Thomas scored 14 in the fourth, including the Nets last ten.

The big play came with 4:31 left when it appeared the Nets could tie the game following a foul call on Brook Lopez and the Nets down two, 99-97. As Day’Ron Sharpe was preparing to go to the line, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer challenged the foul on Lopez and the call was overturned. The Bucks got the ball and Bobby Portis hit a two-pointer on the Nets possession to jump start an 8-2 run. Post-game, Vaughn called the call “interesting.”

“Yeah, interesting,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I guess they went to the review and we also had a little review also. So, interesting call.”

Thomas was also mystified by the call.

“Yeah, for sure. That was crazy. I didn’t understand that one,” Thomas said. “But it is what it is. the refs made a call, they called it so you’ve got to live with it.”

The Nets, facing a back-to-back, rested four players — Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton, Cam Johnson and Royce O’Neale — and were without Ben Simmons as well. Vaughn also made it clear pre-game that he intended to limit Mikal Bridges minutes. The result was predictable as the Nets went down early to the Bucks, falling behind by 22 with 9:21 left in the second, at one point in the first missing 15 straight shots, the franchise’s most futile stretch since they missed 16 straight in March 2012 while still in New Jersey. They got it “down” to 17 at the half then true to his word, Vaughn went deep into his bench, leaving his top guys on the bench.

The quartet of Mills, Thomas, Smith and Duke Jr. made a game of it in the third, slowly whittling down the lead as the Nets outscored the Bucks, 33-23, going into the fourth, down, 87-80. Smith, a 6’3” point guard who played five games earlier this season with the Heat, finished with 17 points, 12 more than his previous career high, shooting 7-of-13 overall, and adding four assists without turning the ball over once. Duke Jr., the 6’5” wing now in his second year as a Nets two-way, also had a career high, scoring 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He also laid claim to a possible dunk of the year with this roll down the lane in the fourth...

The defense improved in the second half as well. After hitting 14 threes in the first two quarters, the Bucks hit just five the remainder of the game.

Post-game, Vaughn credited Long Island Nets coach Ronnie Burrell with helping develop Smith and Duke Jr.

“You know we really really talked about Ronnie Burrell the other day,” said Vaughn of the G League’s reining coach of the month. “I think it kind of starts with him when he has Dru Smith and David Duke with him that he’s preaching the same message that we are here, working on the same concepts.”

Vaughn was so confident in his bench that he didn’t play Bridges or Joe Harris at all in the second half, choosing to go with the players who pushed the Bucks in the third.

“Yeah it’s just how the schedule presented itself,” Vaughn said of his decisions to rely on the bench. “We had guys who had some nagging I guess you want to call them injuries a little bit. So a chance for us to listen to those nagging injuries and be smart about what this stretch of the season looks like.

“It’s a great chance for us to look at a few guys who were in the rotation at one point and worked themselves out of the rotation just because of numbers. So we get a chance to look at a few guys we’ll see what some rotations look like. We’ll always stay curious and see how we can be versatile to try and get a win.”

For the Bucks, Lopez was the nemesis. Now 34 and in his third iteration as player, going from traditional back-to-the-basket center to 3-point shooter to rim protector, the former Net came with a block a triple double, scoring 24 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking a Bucks franchise record nine shots.

Lopez delivered what turned out to be the dagger with a huge tip-in with 30.6 seconds left, helped by two Grayson Allen free throws with 11 second left. Bobby Portis, working underneath in the absence of Claxton, was game high scorer with 28 points to go with 10 boards. Antetokounmpo was out with a non-COVID illness as well as a sore hand.

“It was a close game, and he made the plays that made the difference down the stretch,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Lopez.

Vaughn agreed.

Yeah, [Lopez] has consistently done it,” Vaughn said

Lopez’s nine blocks allowed him to pass Nic Claxton’s total for the season. The former Net now has 161, the current Nets 157. Claxton is still No. 2 in blocks per game, behind Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Grizzlies. Jackson is at 3.2 per game, Claxton 2.6 and Lopez 2.5.

Scoreboard Watch

With the Knicks also losing to Sacramento on Thursday night, the Nets remain the sixth seed, a game behind New York. The Nets still hold a two and a half game lead over the seventh seed Heat and four game lead over the eighth seed Hawks. Brooklyn won the season series with Miami, so the Nets in effect have an even bigger cushion in seeding.

Meanwhile, with Kevin Durant out a minimum of two weeks after spraining his ankle in warm-ups Wednesday, the Nets will be watching what the Suns do going forward. Brooklyn controls the Suns first rounder unprotected (as well as their own first) in the June Draft. As of Friday, the Nets have the 21st (their own) and 22nd (the Suns) picks in the draft which is seen as a strong and deep draft.

Milestone Watch

  • In addition to the Nets scoring the most bench points in the 52 years the NBA has kept records on starters vs. bench scoring, they also laid claim to the converse record. Brooklyn’s starting five scored only 15 combined points — 10 by Mikal Bridge — the fewest by a starting lineup since the Pistons combined for 13 on April 16, 2008.
  • Yuta Watanabe grabbed 10 boards, tying his career high.
  • Cam Thomas scored 20 points for the 10th time this season, including three games of more than 40 and another of 30+.
  • Patty Mills has played more than 20 minutes in only six games this season. In those six, he’s averaging 16.5 ppg. In the three games where he’s played 30 or more, he’s averaging 20.0.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next?

The Nets move on to Minnesota where they will take on the Timberwolves Friday night at 8:00 p.m. ET.

For a different perspective, head on over to Brew Hoop, our Bucks sister site,