The Brooklyn Nets’ trip to Los Angeles saw them play tough, efficient, and attentive basketball for 90% of the time. However, they’re headed back home with a tepid 1-1 split.
The element of “star power,” a resource the Nets once had bountiful stores of, came back to bite them in their latter game vs the Los Angeles Clippers. After Brooklyn led the LA for the entire game, at one point even by 18 points, they took a backhand slap from the Klaw. Dropping 14 points in the game’s final five minutes, Kawhi Leonard dragged his team to the finish and the Nets back to the loser’s circle. Collectively, LA closed the game on a 22-0 run.
But as far as double-digit blown leads go, this one should go down a bit easier considering LA’s might from a roster standpoint and the fight Brooklyn put up for the game’s majority. They lost the battle, but with half as much ammunition as their opponents, still held down the fort far longer than anyone expected them to.
Nobody wants to clap for the rubble of a collapsed building or an upset gone bad, but the Nets did some good in this, as well as some bad. Here’s what we learned.
Time Management is Still an Issue
A lot needs to happen for a team to close on a run like the Clippers did. Brooklyn had a few shots rim out, couldn’t get an inch of space against a hardened Clipper defense, and the shot-making from Leonard and company proved to be too much.
Regardless, the Nets now sit with 12 losses in games where they led or trailed by at least five points in the final five minutes. That’s the sixth most in the NBA. They also have the fifth lowest win percentage in said games this year.
With Mikal Bridges tallying the third most points and shooting 54.2% in the clutch, the highest clip by anyone top-10 clutch field goals attempted, it’s hard for me to point to the Nets not having “a guy” as the main catalyst for this. The Nets rolling with Bridges as their No. 1 option remains a problem, but not down the stretch of games, where he’s proven himself capable of hitting shots.
Instead, this feels like another situation where hindsight is coming after Jacque Vaughn guns a blazing.
He did not call a timeout during the game’s final 3:44, where LA took the lead and left the Nets in the dust. With LA in rhythm and Brooklyn unable to even hold a tune, burning one could have solved both those issues by slowing things down for the Clippers and giving the Nets a chance to draw up something for an easy bucket.
these were Brooklyn's last points https://t.co/LyCdwXZ78H— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 21, 2024
This wasn’t the first time Vaughn’s made questionable decisions with his timeouts, most recently vs the Miami Heat. It’s strange, given how quickly he became associated with the abrupt timeout after taking over for Steve Nash last year, but now feels like a problem nonetheless.
Sitting Dorian Finney Smith down the stretch, who had been doing a fantastic job on Leonard caused me to raise an eyebrow as well. While Finney-Smith struggled again from the field today with zero points on 0-of-5 shooting, so did his replacement in Cam Johnson, who added just nine points while shooting 3-of-11 from the field. (Cam J has gone from shooting 51% overall and 47% from three in December to 38 and 34 in February. Even his free throw percentage is atrocious this month. He’s shooting 44% this month, lower than Nic Claxton and roughly half his career average.)
The Nets wedging themselves into so many of these “make or break situations” makes life tough for Vaughn, as they leave a microscope over all his decisions. However, this is what he signed up for, and the unimpressive results are starting to stack up.
More Cam Thomas Development
Where there’s a big time game for Cam Thomas, there’s almost always negative-minded folks around talking about his passing or lack there of. But when you look past the loss and just at his game, he might have finally pleased everyone tonight, tying a career-high with six assists and still hitting highlight-reel jumpers.
After he had set the same building on fire less than 48 hours before, Thomas faced a different situation Sunday. The Clippers wasted little time bringing the double on Thomas. Sensing the defensive pressure, Thomas did well penetrating and passing out of the trap to create looks for his teammates. There was very little behavior that could be called “tunnel vision scoring.”
Thomas still played his game as well, reeling in 20 points while shooting 8-of-17 from the field. Although none of them were live ball, he did turn it over four times today to be fair. But the ability to read and react to a defense which he illustrated today was more encouraging than any ball-handling mishaps were on the other side of the spectrum.
Given Thomas’s ability to hit shots, he’ll always get extra attention from a defense. But becoming a threat to find his teammates after doubles will unlock the next level of his game. It was nice to see a glimpse of that tonight.
Mikal Bridges 3-Point Renaissance?
Even before Mikal Bridges had that week that “sucked,” as he put it on Twitter, his 3-point percentage had been on the decline. After shooting it from deep at a 37.6 percent clip last year since coming over from Phoenix, he shot 35.9 percent this season coming into January.
Knock on wood, but he may be returning to the mean. In Bridges’ last three, he’s shot 45.8 percent from down town, going 11-of-24 to be specific. He got after it early tonight, hitting one right off the tip and eventually shooting 4-of-7 from deep for the game.
Spencer Dinwiddie’s own renaissance as a driver and floor spacer have helped tremendously in this regard. Bridges remains at his best as a catch-and-shoot guy, and to do that, you need someone the hit you on the wing. Even if Dinwiddie’s not getting an assist like he did in the bucket above, his ability to kickstart things and open up space by breaking down that first line of defense is critical to generating high percentage looks.
Bridges has been too good of a shooter for too long for his numbers this year to become the norm for him going forward. Those deficiencies were more so a product of poor roster construction when you consider Brooklyn’s lack of facilitators. Dinwiddie playing more like a starting-level point guard and Bridges see a bump in his numbers proves that.
It’s only two games, so this is more of step in the right direction rather than a major leap forward for Bridges. He’ll be tested more so sooner rather than later with the Nets playing the top two teams in lowest opponent three point percentage over their next six games (Rockets and 76ers).