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Brooklyn Nets suffer only 999 paper-cuts, defeat Houston Rockets 106-104

They tried to blow it, they really did. A 28-point lead was whittled down to a single point. And yet, the Brooklyn Nets held on, with many thanks to a trusty friend.

Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets needed that. Their fans needed that. It may not turn the season around, but a breath of fresh air, a wire-to-wire win — if not completely stress-free — is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself.

The Houston Rockets played on Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, where they rolled to a 138-104 win. Despite the challenge the Hornets didn’t present, the Rockets were still facing a back-to-back situation, with both games on the road in different cities.

And while Brooklyn would take any break in the schedule they can get, they’d still have to punish Houston into feeling their rest disadvantage. That’s exactly what they did, opening the game not only with fresher legs than their opponent, but far more locked in.

“I think just us being connected as a team,” said Royce O’Neale when discussing what stood out about Brooklyn’s start. “Communicating and locking in on the defensive end, getting stops when we need it. And then, you know, that helps out on offense. We could get easy transition baskets and that boosts everybody’s confidence.”

The Nets covered all their bases on defenses, keeping their individual matchups at bay while rotating furiously across the court. Those stops led to easy offense, and when it didn’t, Brooklyn fell back on Cam Thomas in the half-court.

Thomas got the start for Cam Johnson, out due to personal reasons, and made the most of it. He scored 22 points in the first half, scoring at all three levels and snacking on the drop coverage that looked like candy to him:

During his halftime interview with YES Network’s Meghan Triplett, Thomas credited “being in the starting lineup, knowing what comes with it, knowing who I’m out there playing with and what’s required,” for his hot start. He continued: “Just coming out aggressively, really. Sticking to the game-plan and playing my game, because playing my game helps us as a team.”

While Thomas had the perimeter covered, Nic Claxton patrolled the paint and took his matchup with Alperen Şengün personally. Şengün torched the Nets to the tune of 30 points in their January 3 matchup — a Rockets victory — but Claxton eliminated the possibility of a repeat performance, starting from the opening tip:

Claxton’s final line of 10/13/4/1/1 won’t melt any minds, but the first half revolved around his presence on the inside, shutting off the rim for Houston’s offense and creating extra opportunities for his team on the other end.

Throw in Brooklyn’s 35% mark from deep, compared to just 26.7% for the visitors, and the whole recipe for a dominant half was there. The Nets, who were up by 28 at one point, took a smaller yet satisfying 60-40 lead into halftime, as one thought flowed through the Barclays Center’s collective conscience: Don’t blow it.

The Rockets proved to be quite impolite guests, doing anything but lying down on the second night of their back-to-back. As Jalen Green and Cam Whitmore hit just enough threes to trim the deficit, Houston embodied the ideal of their rebuild, which floundered in seasons prior.

Sloppy? Sure, they ended up with 17 turnovers. Tired? Probably, as a 10-of-37 performance from deep ultimately derailed their comeback attempt. The young Rockets never hit the big shot.

But were they determined? Undoubtedly They attacked the glass ferociously in the second half, ultimately winning the rebounding battle 55-to-40, while forcing a bushel of Brooklyn turnovers.

The Nets didn’t win so much as they survived in the second half. Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith each scored 19 points, with DFS playing menacing defense before exiting early with a left ankle injury. It was his best performance in some time, not only shooting 4-of-8 from three but bringing his renowned defense to the party intensity:

His impact down the stretch was sorely missed, according to Jacque Vaughn: “Yeah, unfortunately he wasn’t able to finish the game, which was huge for us. It affected us a lot of ways ... he was able to guard Şengün, he was able to guard VanVleet, he’s able to guard Jeff Green. And so, his versatility is huge for us, especially with no Day’Ron right now. So no update besides he wasn’t able to finish the game, but we definitely missed him.”

Brooklyn only got 11 total points from their bench, but Thomas finished with 37 to make up for the difference, hitting an apparent dagger from three to push Brooklyn’s lead to 101-93 with three minutes left.

“It’s always been about trying to balance that group out,” said Vaughn of the ongoing conversations on whether Thomas should start. “And I know Cam can score with the first group or the second group. That’s what he can do. I loved his aggressiveness tonight, we needed it. He set the tone for us early.”

And yet, the lead still wasn’t safe. Brooklyn’s dismal 22-of-37 performance from the free throw line and 19 turnovers gave the Rockets ample opportunity to flip the game on its head. And when Amen Thompson stole the inbounds pass and hit a corner three to cut the lead to 103-102 with seven seconds left, you could hear a pin drop.

“We just relaxed and they just came up, played desperate when they was down,” said Mikal Bridges. “That’s on us. We just relaxed, and they just came out and played harder than us.”

Said Vaughn of his team’s late-game shakiness: “It’s just playing with the lead when a team makes a run. And whether it’s inbounding the basketball, whether it is taking care of it so you don’t turn it over, I’m really trying to stress to our team how you value the possessions in the second quarter as they are, it’s still as valuable in the fourth quarter.”

After some foul-game shenanigans and another untimely offensive board for the Rockets, Şengün drew a foul on Claxton, stepping to the line with a chance to tie the game with two seconds left. Then, the birthday boy showed up.

Mr. Whammy, of course!

Şengün missed the first, made the second, and this time, the Nets were able to inbound. Some very long tenths of a second later, Brooklyn had finally escaped a clutch situation with a win.

It wasn’t pretty, nor totally decisive, nor encouraging, really, other than a couple of individual performances.

But it was a win. A win! And the Brooklyn Nets are in no position to be complaining about those.

Final Score: Brooklyn Nets 106, Houston Rockets 104.

Milestone Watch

A few individual performances are milestone-worthy in an uneven win on Saturday evening.

  • First, Cam Thomas. He tallied his eighth 30-point performance of the season with 37 against Houston, and is now up to 14 such games in his career.
  • Nic Claxton’s double-double is his 17th of the season, a team-high, and he's now grabbed double-digit boards in all but one of his last 11 games.
  • Dorian Finney-Smith was everywhere, tallying 19/7/3/2/2 in his 31 minutes of action. That’s two points shy of his season-high, a 21-point performance at Chicago in November.
  • Brooklyn led the Rockets 88-70 heading into the fourth quarter. Houston’s 70 points are the second-fewest allowed by Brooklyn through three quarters this season.

Injury Updates

Jacque Vaughn offered up a couple injury updates, both significant, prior to action. Let’s start with the good news, which is that Ben Simmons has a “high likelihood” of playing against the Utah Jazz on Monday night, Brooklyn’s next game.

Here’s our full story on Simmons’ imminent return, with quotes from the max-contract Net on how this rehab process differed from previous ones, and what he’s looking forward to after missing 38 games. The long and short of it, though: Simmons went through a full practice with the Long Island Nets on Saturday morning, felt good and looked it, according to Vaughn, and is likely to play on Monday.

The bad news? Dariq Whitehead is out for the season, set to undergo an surgery on his left shin, which began experiencing a stress reaction in December. Whitehead, who appeared in 18 games with Long Island and two with Brooklyn, is scheduled to go under the knife on Monday, per Vaughn.

It’ll be the third lower-leg surgery in the last year-and-a-half for Brooklyn’s 2023 first-round pick, though the other two were on his right foot, both before the Nets drafted the ex-Duke Blue Devil.

Next Up

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Brooklyn’s next game — and Ben Simmons’ likely return — is against the Utah Jazz, their fourth of five straight at home. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET from the Barclays Center.