The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers treated basketball fans to a proof of one of the game’s oldest theorems on Sunday afternoon: It’s a game of runs. The final one just didn’t go in Brooklyn’s favor.
Final Score: Los Angeles Clippers 125, Brooklyn Nets 114.
After playing in the only city (besides their own) with two NBA teams on Friday, the Nets didn’t have to board a plane after a convincing win over the Lakers. They got to enjoy some rare rest on the road, preparing to play in the same arena later in the weekend.
They clearly made themselves at home, picking up right where they left off to start Sunday’s matinee against the Clippers:
Mikal Bridges swished home a 3-pointer five seconds into the game, and the Nets didn’t let up. Brooklyn sprinted out to a 16-0 lead. as the Clippers looked like the tourists that had enjoyed a Saturday night out in the City of Angels.
As they’d done in recent weeks, Jacque Vaughn deployed a switch-heavy defense out of the gates, which ground L.A.’s offense to a halt. James Harden’s deadly pick-and-rolls instead turned into slow-moving isolations, as he and Paul George took turns clanging shots off the rim while Kawhi Leonard waited in the corner for a pass that wasn’t coming.
That was all short-lived. Four minutes later, the score was tied 18-18, as two monster runs canceled each other out before the first quarter had even expired. But the signs were still positive for Brooklyn. Free-flowing ball movement led to open 3-point attempts for every member of the starting five except for Nic Claxton, who in turn was enjoying a matchup with Ivica Zubac’s injury replacement, Mason Plumlee.
After the two teams traded buckets for the rest of the first quarter, the next big run came courtesy of Brooklyn’s second unit to start the second quarter.
The Nets jumped out to a 45-31 lead midway through the frame, buoyed by a familiar, feisty three-guard lineup. Dennis Smith Jr. did DSJ stuff, talking enough trash to egg Harden into a double-tech while running the floor in transition and even hitting a corner three. Lonnie Walker floated in transition, whether all the way to the rim or pulling up for three:
Lonnie Walker pulls down the board and pulls up from three and Jacque Vaughn is loving it. pic.twitter.com/MzHASzRPbT— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) January 21, 2024
Those two combined for 21 points in relatively suppressed minutes — 18 for Smith, just ten for Walker — but the real star was Cam Thomas.
Thomas didn’t play his most explosive game; it was no 40-piece from another planet, though there were ridiculous shots:
Yet, his 20-point, six-assist performance featured plenty of under-control possessions where he drew two defenders, saw that the last line of L.A.’s help defense was nowhere to be found, and made a simple pass to Claxton for a layup or dunk.
Brooklyn’s starting center would finish with 16 points and six boards, and most of his looks were spoon-fed, the result of a Clipper defense that was disengaged at best for most of Sunday afternoon. But rather than Dinwiddie or Bridges spoon-feeding Clax throughout the game, it was Thomas finding the opportunities just as he had early in the Lakers game...
Cam Thomas drives baseline, dumps it off to Claxton for a huge jam: pic.twitter.com/CjR9JBgaAz— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 21, 2024
Brooklyn took a 61-49 lead into halftime, and all seemed rosy.
“That ball was pinging around,” said Vaughn of Brooklyn’s offense. “They didn’t know who to guard. Multiple actions, randomness, that piece of it gives you an advantage, whether it’s a close out, whether it’s a blown coverage.”
That offensive production continued through the third quarter, as the Clippers couldn’t cut into the deficit. The starting five refused to give up their lead this time, behind the efforts of Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie.
Each hit four 3-pointers, many of them swishing through the net to crush L.A.’s momentum, as Brooklyn’s starting backcourt finally caught up with the bench. Bridges in particular was impressive, finishing with a 26/6/5 line despite battling through the shin contusion he suffered on Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers:
Mikal Bridges walking gingerly after slipping and falling on that shin again: pic.twitter.com/8nklOOg91V— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 21, 2024
He was outplaying L.A.’s stars, although not a tall task on Sunday afternoon. George, Harden, and Leonard reminded fans of a certain Brooklyn trio, sleep-walking against a lesser opponent. If not for Russell Westbrook off the bench, their lack of production may have been fatal.
Westbrook was everywhere, playing 31 minutes to post 23/9/6 on 10-of-16 shooting. The Tasmanian Devil-ish drives to the rim went his way on Sunday, and for much of the contest, he was the only Clipper interested in matching Brooklyn’s energy and fight. He blocked two shots, put his nose in Brooklyn’s jerseys, and kept his team alive for the fourth quarter...
It appeared no different from the three quarters that had preceded it. The Clippers hit a shot to generate some momentum, only for the Nets to respond with a cushion-inflating play, often from Bridges or Thomas. Sometimes both:
Clippers cut it to seven, then Cam Thomas hits a floater and hits Bridges for a transition layup after Bridges steals the ball: pic.twitter.com/gBGO970eLN— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 21, 2024
And then, the run to end all runs. Those buckets, which extended the lead to 114-103, were Brooklyn’s last of the game. That was it. No more.
Anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for the Nets, as they helplessly watched the Clippers end the game on a 22-0 run that erased all of their previous sins. Unimaginative offense for three-and-a-half quarters, uninterested defense with no semblance of backline rotations, relying on a bench player to bring enough energy to ignite the whole roster?
Well, L.A. went unpunished for all of that, and proved themselves correct in their decision to take the Brooklyn Nets lightly. Leonard finally turned it up to hit some big shots down the stretch, as did Harden, who led the Clips with both 24 points and ten assists.
But they needed Brooklyn to collapse, and the Nets whole-heartedly obliged.
Scoring zero points in just under six minutes of NBA action seems impossible, but they pulled it off. On some possessions, Cam Johnson (3-of-11, nine points) or Dorian Finney-Smith (0-of-5, zero points) would miss an open shot. On many others, Brooklyn ran the same bland actions to no avail, dribble-handoffs against switches that went sideways at best.
At one point, Nic Claxton took a corner three with a dozen seconds on the shot-clock. Why? Well, why not? Bridges started trying to bleed the clock out with four minutes left, letting the ball roll up the floor, acknowledging the Nets were trying to avoid a loss, rather than notch a win.
Jacque Vaughn played defense-offense with Finney-Smith and Thomas alongside the rest of the starters, though only called one timeout during the avalanche. Should it have been more? Maybe so. Then again, it seemed like his team needed divine intervention rather than a simple timeout during their worst stretch of the season.
“I think it just tells you that our group is still learning lessons,” said Vaughn of the late-game failure. “And so whether it’s being organized after a free-throw in which you have plenty of time to be organized and get into a set, you got that piece of it. Whether it’s taking the shots that you would normally take throughout the course of the game that your teammates expect you to take, that piece of it.” [*Cough* Nic Claxton]
Nobody can escape blame for such a loss. A 2-0 stint in Los Angeles was in their fingertips, as the Nets had outplayed their opponents for seven-and-a-half quarters in Tinsel Town. Two measly wins may not have erased all the pain of the past month, but it would have given Nets fans what they've been missing: something to cheer about.
But basketball is a game of runs. And an historically awful one now sends the Nets back to Brooklyn, hurting once more.
A couple of individual accomplishments from this one, small potatoes given the brutal ending.
- Cam Thomas posted the fourth 20-point, five-assist game of his career, and the 19th 20-point of his season.
- Mikal Bridges now has nine 20/5/5 games on the season, bringing his career total for such games to 15.
Simmons & Sharpe Update coming
Before the game, Jacque Vaughn said that once the Nets return to Brooklyn, the team will have updates on the health of Ben Simmons, out since November 6 with nerve impingement issues related to his back injury, and Day’Ron Sharpe, who hyperextended his knee on January 6.
Bernie Lee, Simmons’ agent, said before the West Coast trip that he expected the 6’11” point guard would be ramping up while traveling with the Nets and indeed he was seen in both Portland and Los Angeles doing court work with Nets assistant coaches. Vaughn said the trip and the workouts were valuable in getting Simmons re-acclimated.
“All those things matter as he starts transitioning his way to being back on the floor,” Vaughn said. “So that gap of recall isn’t, so huge for him whether it’s different plays that we’re running from last time that he was in, whether its different schemes that we were running.”
Simmons is expected back shortly, perhaps even this week. Meanwhile, rumors persist that the Nets have been examining the trade market for help at the point.
Tsai on hand
Joe Tsai — who some fans would like to hear from — was at Crypto.com Center but didn’t speak.
No rest for the wicked. The Brooklyn Nets will return home to play their cross-town rival at the Barclays Center. Tip-off against the New York Knicks is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday evening.
- Box Score: Los Angeles Clippers 125, Brooklyn Nets 114 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Los Angeles Clippers 125, Brooklyn Nets 114 (Video) - NBA
- Paul George & Kawhi Leonard Clipper Highlight Reel (Video) - NBA
- Nets fall to Clippers (Video) - Frank Isola & Bob Lorenz - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn on the Nets’ loss to the Clippers (Video) - YES Network
- Dennis Smith Jr. on the Nets’ defeat to the Clippers (Video) - YES Network
- Mikal Bridges on the Nets’ loss (Video) - Meghan Triplett - YES Network
- Cam Thomas: Postgame vs. Clippers (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Nic Claxton: Postgame vs. Clippers (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Highlights: Mikal Bridges vs. Clippers / 26 PTS (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Highlights: Cam Thomas vs. Clippers / 20 PTS (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Leonard scores 14 points in 5 minutes, Clippers overcome 18-point deficit to stun Nets 125-114 - Beth Harris - AP
- Kawhi Leonard takes over in fourth as Clippers stun Nets - Reuters
- Nets allow final 22 points in brutal implosion against James Harden, Clippers - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets collapse in 4th quarter in brutal loss to James Harden, Clippers ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets collapse late vs. Clippers, allow 22-0 fourth-quarter run in loss ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets expecting progress reports on Ben Simmons, Day’Ron Sharpe ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Late-Game Collapse To Clippers Another Example Of Vaughn Choosing To Die On Inconsistent Hills - Steve Lichtenstein - Steve’s Newsletter
- Clippers score final 22 points of game to beat the Nets ($) - Andrew Greif - Los Angeles Times