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3 (or more) takeaways from Brooklyn Nets’ 96-94 loss to Minnesota Timberwolves: Are we there yet?

The Nets aren’t just bad, but they’re a slog to watch, and feel purposeless.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Believe it or not, there were positive takeaways from the Brooklyn Nets’ 96-94 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, their third straight loss that dropped their record to 17-27, now firmly in the dregs of the Eastern Conference.

Once again, the defense switched many-a-ball-screen, with great success. Holding the Western Conference’s one-seed to just 96 points in 48 minutes of play boosted Brooklyn’s defense to sixth in the month of January, as they continue to morph into the team we expected in the preseason.

Their strength is now on the defensive end of the court, after two months of ill-fated drop coverage led to a barrage of 3-pointers for the opposition, they’re now suckering teams into isolation basketball, and are keeping the ball in front.

Clax keeps on keeping on

That’s largely true of Nic Claxton, who slowed down sure-to-be All-Star Anthony Edwards down the stretch on Thursday night, in turn grinding Minnesota’s offense to a halt. The ship has probably sailed on Claxton receiving any recognition for his defense at the end of the season, given Brooklyn’s poor start on that end and subpar record, but the 6’11” lefty is still a joy to watch,

This is why he’s going to get paid the big bucks, whether by the Nets or another franchise:

Premium switching and good-if-not-great drop defense makes Clax one of the most valuable defenders in the league, which we saw as part of his 16/11/4/2/2 line vs. the Wolves. Unfazed by Minny’s super-sized front-court of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, Clax was Brooklyn’s best player by a wide margin.

Killa Cam going downhill

Elsewhere, Cam Thomas had a couple drives that showcased the most tantalizing part of his potential. No, not the tough shotmaking, which is a ceiling-raiser but still the cherry on top of what drives Thomas on his best nights: his ability to get downhill.

Thomas shot just 7-of-15, an average night for the young guard but made up for it with a 10-of-10 performance from the free-throw line. He decided to get by his primary defender and into the paint as soon as he checked into the ballgame on Thursday night, and even with five turnovers, the aggressiveness was often welcome for a Nets team that struggles in that area.

Here he is blowing by Jaden McDaniels for a layup:

That’s the good stuff.

The bland leading the bland

But ultimately, Claxton’s production and flashes from Thomas were just band-aids on Brooklyn’s gushing wounds at this point in the season, They feel pointless.

Barclays Center was dead for much of Thursday’s action, despite their Nets hanging in there until the final possession against the West’s top team. Following a New York Knicks takeover, the home fans were subdued against Minnesota, expecting a loss for much of the night.

It’s not just the talent level for Brooklyn, it’s the play-style as well. There is almost nothing interesting going on with this team from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Mikal Bridges and yes, even Cam Johnson will be better for this stretch when the Nets eventually, hopefully, swing major trades for big-time offensive creators and/or get the old Ben Simmons back.. Bridges in particular has clearly leveled up his offensive game in the year he’s been a Net, though the counting stats won’t show it.

Yet, the offense is a drag to watch, particularly when Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t providing much. And Brooklyn doesn’t do much to make up for that talent deficit; there’s no creativity in the offense, no plan-of-attack outside of pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs at chosen defenders, the occasional veer screen or exit screen out-of-timeout play notwithstanding.

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So outside of the Twins, who is benefitting by being a Net? Is it Cam Thomas? Is it Lonnie Walker IV, who didn’t shoot well vs. the Wolves but played just 14 minutes, stuck behind two guards on the bench alone? Doesn’t seem like it.

A one-point loss to Minnesota, a decent outcome that highlighted an improved defense, was another display of Brooklyn’s current situation. They need the trade deadline to liven up, they may even need the offseason.

This was always the danger of a transition year with minimal offensive talent on the roster, that waiting for a superstar to ask out as the next step in a long-term plan would produce a miserable product and depress team-wide morale in the short-term:

...All that plus the fan experience rooting for a team whose present is pointless, whose future needs to arrive as soon as possible.

The Nets have real players, Cam Thomas and Nic Claxton among them. Mikal Bridges too, missed free-throws in the clutch aside. Hell, even Cam Johnson is a valuable NBA player; 6’8” shooters that can defend at a reasonable levels don’t grow on trees. (And they often look better in viable offenses with real creators.)

But Brooklyn is stuck in a waiting game. A self-imposed one, the consequence of refusing to rebuild when given the opportunity. The Minnesota game is just another tough loss to flush, another 48 minutes of basketball closer to the trade deadline, closer to the end of a painful season. Alas, something to look forward to.