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Brooklyn Nets survive late Utah Jazz comeback , win 111-110

The Brooklyn Nets nearly suffered another gut-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss...key word: nearly

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Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz entered their Sunday brunch at the Barclays Center with more than a few similarities. After a handful of seasons coming up short as contenders, each organization has taken this season to walk their first steps down a new path. The Nets, of course, started on their path after the trade deadline, whereas the Jazz took it apart immediately after last season. But both Brooklyn and Utah are trying to build towards the future without bottoming out in the present, banking on draft capital received in exchange for forfeiting their stars.

The main difference between the two squads lies in their short-term goals. Utah started the season by surprising everyone, sitting comfortably above the play-in tournament until the All-Star Break. Now, having gone 5-10 in their last 15 entering Sunday’s action, they look poised to slip below play-in range, and secure some ping-pong balls as we approach a much-hyped NBA draft class. Like the Jazz the Nets also own their pick this season, but that’s not stopping them from making a playoff push. Brooklyn entered Sunday with a magic number of three to capture the East’s six-seed and avoid the play-in - that is, a combination of three wins and Miami Heat losses.

That number shrunk to two after the Nets survived the Jazz on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. With seven minutes left in the first quarter, Cam Johnson laid the ball up to take an 11-10 lead; it proved to be the final lead change of the game. For the rest of the afternoon, Brooklyn and Utah traded runs without ever trading the upper hand. Not that it didn’t get dicey. An early double-digit lead dropped to six, but stabilized at 11 by halftime; then, a game-high 23-point lead in the fourth quarter plunged to one single point with under ten seconds to go. The Jazz even attempted a game-winner at the buzzer after Seth Curry missed two free-throws with four seconds left. But Kelly Olynyk’s one-legged fader missed the rim completely, and with short breath and clenched fists, the Nets held on 111-110. Mission accomplished. I guess.

Throughout the first quarter, Brooklyn did something that lasted for only those 12 minutes: made their 3-pointers. A 4-of-9 mark from deep propelled them to a 30-17 lead at the first buzzer including three 3-pointers in a row pushed an early lead to 11:

But Brooklyn’s hot shooting wouldn’t last all day; the Nets finished the game having made nine of their 32 threes, just a 28.1% mark. The rest of the first half featured consistent inside-the-arc scoring, as Brooklyn shot 56% from two over the first 24 minutes. Nic Claxton certainly did his part, finishing the game with 14 points on a crisp 7-of-8 shooting, and continuing to threaten defenses as more than just a one-note lob threat:

Overall, their first-half scoring was balanced; all five starters hit at least two field goals. Both the ball and the players were moving with energy; the offense flowed at a level it was simply incapable of a month ago:

Perhaps the clichés preaching patience and the importance of this new unit needing time to grow were not so empty.

“We were really moving the basketball. Mikal [Bridges] had a good stretch where he was able to convert for us, but at the same time, Nic [Claxton] was getting to the rim for us. Spencer [Dinwiddie] was getting downhill, [Cam Johnson] was making plays off the bounce,” said Jacque Vaughn. “It was kind of spread throughout the team, which was a good thing.”

But the biggest reason Brooklyn took a 53-42 lead into the half-time break, despite their long-range shooting cooling off after the first quarter, was their defense.

Mikal Bridges agreed, plainly citing “stops” as the key to building Brooklyn’s double digit lead: “That’s the biggest thing...just guarding.”

The Nets were particularly effective defending Utah’s leading scorer and frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, Lauri Markkanen. The stretch big from Finland, averaging over 25 points this season, shot just 3-of-9 in the first half for six points, bothered by physical defense and timely doubling from the Nets. Instead, it was Talen Horton-Tucker preventing the Jazz from getting run out of the gym, scoring 17 points in the first half on a variety of tough pull-up jumpers.

Post-game, Jacque Vaughn discussed surrendering a big game to Utah’s secondary options, but keeping their primary scorer in check: “I take a little bit of a football aspect, you’re not gonna be able to stop the run and the pass. So sometimes, we go into a night and Trae Young is not going to get off, or Lauri Markkanen is not going to get off. We’re hoping that we can use the other guys on the floor, that if a secondary guy has a good game, then we have to live with some of the consequences.”

Minor developments included Yuta Watanabe receiving eight minutes of run and sinking two 3-pointers, a welcome sight for a wing who had made just two of his 15 previous attempts entering Sunday. Bridges, meanwhile, couldn’t find consistent touch from the field, but an aggressive approach getting downhill granted him 13 free-throw attempts, contributing to another 30 points for the rising star, albeit on a clunky 25 shots.

Jacque Vaughn praised his newfound free-throw machine, claiming that “He’s learning how to receive contact and also, you know, be in the shooting motion.”

Bridges credited “a lot of film, a lot of practice, just being out there and trying to read the game” for his ability to draw fouls. He also gave shout-outs to two ex-teammates, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, calling them “two guys...that I watch a lot, how they draw fouls and get to the paint.”

As the third quarter wound down, these teams offered up more of the same. Brooklyn’s lead slowly but surely inched up to the 20-point range, and with much of the basketball world focused on the NCAA women’s championship game, the channel seemed safe to switch.

Then, the fourth quarter.

Initially, it looked like the starters were going to get some rest in the final frame, turning their attention to the final week of the season. But a five-man unit featuring Watanabe, Cam Thomas, Royce O’Neale, Seth Curry, and Day’Ron Sharpe couldn’t hold the fort down, and the starters came rolling back in. A minor inconvenience, but no problem, right?

Wrong. The same Nets who defended their butts off and moved the ball for 36 minutes did neither in the final frame. The Utah Jazz aggressively trapped Spencer Dinwiddie with great success; he and his teammates reacted as if they were seeing a sixth defender on the court:

On the other end, THT and and Markkanen got into the lane at will, seemingly being escorted there by defenders on some possessions:

After a slow start, Markkanen poured in 17 second-half points, and rookie Ochai Agbaji added 15. Were the Nets really going to blow another home game in excruciating fashion? Cleveland II?

Well, when Seth Curry stepped up to the line with four seconds left and missed both free-throws in a one-point game, it sure felt like it. There Kelly Olynyk was, dribbling up the court with ample time to get a look off, following 12 minutes of pathetic Brooklyn basketball where the Nets had erased any goodwill they’d built up. Why would the Basketball Gods grant this team this game? Somehow, they did:

Spencer Dinwiddie surmised that “we took our foot off the gas a little bit, obviously. And we let them get in the bonus for like nine-and-a-half minutes. So at that point in time, you got a team that’s young, figuring things out, but they know they can put their heads down and drive.”

Jacque Vaughn recovered from the stomach-dropping ending to maintain his usual, optimistic outlook, despite the near collapse: “What we take away from this game is...situations you can’t replicate in practice, which is great for us. There’s only one winner and one loser in every single game; we won. So we’re gonna take the win and we’re gonna keep this thing moving. ”

Keep it moving, indeed. Brooklyn wins, 111-110. Another step closer to clinching a playoff spot, and a win that doesn’t demand too much savoring. But the Nets and their fans will take it.

Milestone Watch

  • Mikal Bridges didn’t have his prettiest 30-ball ever, but it was his 11th 30-point game in 23 games as a Net, after just two in 365 games as a Phoenix Sun.
  • The Utah Jazz had 68 points through three quarters, the second-fewest surrendered by Brooklyn through three quarters this season (low: 62 points on March 5th vs. Charlotte).
  • Bridges’ 13 free-throw attempts marked a career-high, surpassing the 12 he took vs. Orlando last Sunday.
  • Spencer Dinwiddie, with his 17 points and 12 assists, recorded his ninth double-double of the season, tying a single-season career-high (2019-20 with Brooklyn).

Standings Watch

As noted, the Nets magic number to clinch the six seed — and avoid the play-in tournament — is two. Any combination of Nets wins and Heat losses totaling two and the Nets will be in the post-season and face the three seed, likely the 76ers. In that case, the Nets will have some time off between the last game of the regular season, April 9, and the first game of the playoffs, April 15.

Most Improved Player(s)

Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton are both expected to get votes for Most Improved Player. At this point, Bridges is closer to the top of the balloting, according to Las Vegas. Lauri Markkanen, is the front runner, followed closely by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Thunder. But both Jacque Vaughn and Will Hardy, his Jazz counterpart, think Bridges is very deserving.

“I just look at has Mikal has been able to improve as a player? Yes. On both ends of the floor? Yes. Can he still get better? Yes,” Vaughn said before the Utah game. “He can get better and he has gotten better.”

“Mikal was a great player when he was in Phoenix, but you’re playing with Chris Paul and Devin Booker and those guys have the ball a lot. Lauri played last year with Darius Garland and higher usage guys on that team. I think both of those guys have high ceilings and will continue to get better as they get consistent opportunity,” Hardy said of Markkanen and Bridges.

“That’s just growth, just learning, learning the game,” said Bridges of MIP speculation. “There are two guys in Phoenix right now that I watched a lot in how they draw fouls and get to the paint and I’ve guarded guys who can get fouls, especially on me, so I kinda know how to get foul calls a little bit.

“It’s growth too, just a lot of film and a lot of practice, just being out there and trying to read the game. It’s a lot, just with growth and learning and just watching as well.”

The Whammy Effect

During the game, a stat appeared on the Jumbotron showing opponents have the worst free-throw shooting percentage at Barclays Center than any other arena.

After the game, Spencer Dinwiddie offered up some of his signature commentary: “All credit to Mr. Whammy, for sure.” So, Spencer will the guys be taking Mr. Whammy out to dinner: “I think Joe Tsai can probably pay for dinner for about a year...actually, rent may help too.”

Tsai tweeted out his happiness (relief?) with the win, but nothing about a Whammy dinner...

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next?

The Brooklyn Nets will play host to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday evening, with tip scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.

For another perspective on Sunday’s sweaty success over the Utah Jazz, visit our sister site, SLC Dunk