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Nets close out the regular season with a loss to 76ers, 134-105

Nets head into the NBA playoffs with a matchup against the 76ers.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Months ago when Adam Silver and his friends penciled in today’s matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers to cap off the regular season, they likely envisioned Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, and James Harden duking it out for a top seed, if not the top seed, in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For a multitude of reasons, which I won’t bore you with, that did not happen. Instead, they got Mac McClung and Cam Thomas battling it out with a side of Dewayne Dedmon and David Duke Jr. While it’s certainly fair to call that a downgrade, Brooklyn and Philly’s bench mobs made game No. 82 entertaining nonetheless.

The Nets and Sixers played without virtually all their stars. No Mikal Bridges other than the first four seconds of the game to preserve his consecutive game streak; No Nic Claxton nor Cam Johnson either. On the other side, no Joel Embiid nor James Harden either.

Even without Embiid on the floor, the Sixers played as if he were, looking to wreak havoc down low from start to finish. The first quarter saw Philly put up 24 of their 36 first quarter points in the paint. Philly essentially ran their offense through backup bigs Dedmon and Montrezl Harrell. Dedmon found the most success, scoring inside both on his own takes to the cylinder and after his teammates’ on the offensive glass.

Brooklyn took a different, more modern approach to their early offense — leaning on their outside shooting. The Nets went 3-7 from deep in the first period but their flimsy defense had them behind by 20 points early in the second quarter.

The tied changed roughly halfway through that second frame as Philly’s understandable, but lacking chemistry with their rag tag unit today began to show. The Sixers committed five turnovers in the period, many of which led to easy buckets for the Nets in transition. Brooklyn even tightened things up around the rim for a few sequences, at one point leading to a Yuta Watanabe block which turned into an impressive David Duke Jr. finish.

Brooklyn began the third frame still behind Philly by a 61-53 tally. The period opened up with some entertaining back and forth scoring and then evolved into something of a duel between Cam Thomas and Louis King — adding another off script but entertaining chapter this final game.

Thomas poured in 23 points in the frame to keep Brooklyn in it. That scoring burst gave him his fourth 40-point game of the season — the most by anyone on the team this year. Hitting from deep and attacking the rim, King finished with 13 points in the period.

Thomas continued to cook into the fourth period but Philly brought back out their recipe for success from the first quarter — bullying the shorter Nets inside with Dedmon and Harrell and doubling, even tripling Thomas, daring him to find the open man.

With Day’Ron Sharpe as the team’s only active center, Brooklyn simply lacked the personnel to stop the bleeding inside. Dedmon and Harrell slowed the game’s pace as final quarter reached its latter half, limiting the transition opportunities for Brooklyn. With Thomas simultaneously cooling off, both teams coasted toward a 135-106 finish in favor of the visiting Sixers.

Thomas finished with 46 points, falling just one tic shy of tying a career high which he set earlier this season against the Los Angels Clippers. Even in a meaningless game, the Sixers seemed determined to keep Thomas from reaching the 50-point mark, throwing double-teams at him late in the fourth quarter. Both Thomas and Jacque Vaughn noticed.

“I think they were trying to keep him away from 50,” Vaughn said. “A little pride came into play trying to keep him away from 50. 46 is pretty good.”

Vaughn tempered his enthusiasm for Thomas scoring by wondering aloud about efficiency.

“I wish the score was 134, Brooklyn Nets, 105 Philadelphia. I think that part helps. The goal is you win as a team. So 46 points is great but we end up losing by 30. So you’ve got to attach those together.

“How do you marry the 29 shots to being a productive teammate where you might not get that amount of shots in a typical game? That’s the question. So can you harness and take that ability and be able to do it in the shorter amount of time? In a more efficient time? And in a setting that it benefits the entire team? That’s the challenge.”

When Thomas was asked if he feels his performance will lead the coaches to play him in the post-season, he said this: “I don’t know, hopefully. That’s not in my control, that’s their decision. So I don’t know.”

Thomas also took a philosophical approach to the Sixers doubling him.

“If ya’ll are going to double, you should have did it when I had like 30 in the third,” said Thomas. “I was surprised but it is what it is”

Outside Thomas’s eruption, RaiQuan Gray provided the game’s best story as far as Nets fans would be concerned. Brooklyn signed Gray to their second two-way slot after Duke Jr. vacated it when he signed a standard contract. Gray not only logged his first career minutes at the NBA level but quietly flirted with a triple double recording a 16 points, 7 assists, and 9 rebounds.

“I talked to him about it, just being thankful for the opportunity,” said Vaughn postgame. “You don’t know when it’s gonna present itself in life. He was ready, he showed up.”

“I felt comfortable. I think I belong here. You know, these group of guys, I’ve been here in the summertime,” Gray said post-game. “So, I’m familiar with some of the faces, but it was good to get out there and experience that, you know? I think it’s like a dream come true. But, I felt comfortable, confident. So, trying to go out and play my game.”

He didn’t enjoy an NBA Jam “fire” stretch like Thomas, but Duke Jr. oftentimes looked like Brooklyn’s most effective player today. Without a true point guard active, Duke Jr. initiated much of the team’s offense, freeing up looks for Thomas, Patty Mills, and Yuta Watanabe via drive and kick actions. He finished with 15 points, 4 assists, and 8 rebounds. He also stayed active at the defensive end, picking up three steals.

Mac McClung got it on for the G-League 76ers as well, leading Philly with 20 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds. He got there a multitude of ways, sticking with his bread and butter by flushing home two transition dunks, but also going 3-9 from beyond the arc. Shake Milton and King joined him with 20 point totals for the game as well.

Taking no risks

Before the game, Jacque Vaughn made it clear that he intended to both preserve Mikal Bridges consecutive game streak and his well-being.

“I’m going to tell him that you’re basically going to go into the game and you’re going to foul and then I’m going to get your tail out of the game,” Vaughn said of Bridges.

True to his word, Vaughn had Bridges foul Shake Middleton with 11:56 on the clock in the first quarter, replacing him with David Duke Jr. for the duration.

Before the game, Bridges told Newsday he supported Vaughn’s plan.

“Very reasonable,” he said. “I’m not hurting anything. The whole thing’s just resting as well as getting everybody else playing and getting more minutes. It’s good. Just go out there and get ready to cheer [for teammates].

“If this game was meant for something I still would have been playing. It’s cool, though. It’s an opportunity to be able to play every day. I’m just blessed.”

Meanwhile on the Philly side, Doc Rivers was more laid back. Asked before the game what he hoped to get out of the game, Rivers said, “I’m just trying to get to see the end of the Masters, if you want me to be honest.”

Milestone Watch

  • Today Mikal Bridges became the 42nd player in NBA history to play in 83+ games in a season and the third in the past decade. He’s also the first player to do so in a season since Josh Smith did so with the Detroit Pistons/Houston Rockets (2014-15)
  • Bridges also became the first NBA player to appear in 390 straight games since Russell Westbrook did so from 2008 to 2013.
  • Bridges finished as the NBA leader in minutes for the second straight season, something no NBA player has accomplished in 31 years.
  • Yuta Watanabe made his start with the Nets and the ninth of his NBA career
  • Cam Thomas finished with 40+ points for the fourth time this season, surpassing Durant and Bridges for the most 40+ point games by a Net this season.
  • Thomas is tied for the third most 40-point games (4) in the NBA since February 7th. He’s tied with Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum. Only Damian Lillard (7) and Donovan Mitchell (8) had more.
  • Thomas is the fifth player in the franchise’s NBA history to record four or more 40-point games in a season, joining: Vince Carter (three times); Kevin Durant; Kyrie Irving (2 times); and John Williamson.
  • The Nets finish the season with a 45-37 record, making it their third winningest season since moving to Brooklyn behind their 49 wins in 2012-13 and 48 wins (out of 72) in the 2020-21 season.

Stars were out in Brooklyn

On hand for the final game of the regular season: former New York Nets Julius Erving and Brian Taylor, Billy Jean King (seated next to co-owner Clara Wu Tsai) and actor Bobby Carnevale.

Fan Appreciation Night

After a long, long, long season, the Nets rewarded their fans with shoutouts and some up close and personal time...

Mo’ Money

Bobby Marks tweeted out the amounts of bonus money players with incentive packages earned this season. Both Nic Claxton and Spencer Dinwiddie were on it.

With the added incentive payments, Dinwiddie’s salary jumped from $18.0 million to $19.5 million and Claxton’s jumped from $8.5 million to $9.35 million. Marks did not detail which incentives each player met.

Final Draft Order

The Nets and Suns finished with identical 45-37 records. So, as a result of the Kevin Durant trade, the Nets will have both their own and the Suns picks, at No. 21 and 22 in the first round. In the second, the two teams are tied for the 51st and 52nd picks. The NBA, as is their normal practice, will break the tie in a matter of days with a random drawing.

For those wondering, the Pistons finished dead last with a 17-65 mark giving them the best shot at Victor Wembanyama in the May 16 Draft Lottery.

What’s Next?

As we’ve known for a while now, the Nets will face the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. Now, we know the details. The two teams will battle again at 1:00 p.m. Saturday in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center. The game will be broadcast on ESPN and YES Network. Brooklyn and Philly last met in the postseason during the 2018-19 season. You might remember Jared Dudley’s beef with Ben Simmons from that series which eventually boiled over into a brawl. The Nets won the first game in that series but then lost four straight.

“Enjoy this thing,” said Jacque Vaughn when asked about his message for the team headed into the playoffs. “You have colleagues and friends across the league that will be watching you play next month. So enjoy it.”

For a different perspective on all that, go to Liberty Ballers, our 76ers sister site on SB Nation.