The Brooklyn Nets slammed into the dog days of the regular season face-first. What started as a regular season that promised fun and competitive if not contending basketball became a slog as we approached 2024.
The new year did not immediately change Brooklyn’s fortunes; in fact, the Nets played their most discouraging game of the season on Tuesday night, opening the new year with a 112-85 loss that had Head Coach Jacque Vaughn openly challenging the integrity of his team.
“And if you’re really desperate about winning,” he said, “then you dive on the floor, you do it all. You’ll get cuts and bruises and you’ll go home sore. We’re not there yet. It’s as simple as that.”
The uphill climb would only steepen on Wednesday night, with Brooklyn missing Dennis Smith Jr. on the second half of the back-to-back, as well as Lonnie Walker for the 17th straight game. But not even those absences in the backcourt could mask the greater worry for the Nets, a team that was supposed to out-hustle opponents that instead lacks character.
So, did they out-hustle the Rockets on Wednesday night? Sure. Brooklyn finished with more rebounds, more steals, more blocks, and fewer turnovers than their opponent. Did it matter? No. Once again, the Nets couldn’t make a shot and were buried by the lack of a primary creator, the kind of player they watched destroy them on the other side.
Final Score: Houston Rockets 112, Brooklyn Nets 101
“When you get hit, how are you going to respond? And so, we can’t think that making shots is the response.”
That’s what Vaughn had to say following Brooklyn’s total non-response in New Orleans, itself following a tough loss in Oklahoma City where the Nets played well, but couldn’t buy a 3-point make.
Brooklyn clearly took those words to heart on the second night of a back-to-back, or were perhaps just embarrassed by their performance a night earlier. Either way, the response couldn't have been simply making shots, or the game would’ve been over before halftime.
The Rockets came out with a unique defensive strategy, having young center Alperen Şengün defend Dorian Finney-Smith, dropping in the pick-and-roll and daring DFS to hit pick-and-pop threes.
Rockets have funneled everything to DFS in the pick-and-pop, and it's working. Finney-Smith is 3-of-10 already, no other Net has taken four shots: pic.twitter.com/MEB4XjbrgI— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 4, 2024
The strategy worked, and Finney-Smith was Brooklyn’s lead brick-layer in an ugly offensive first half where the Nets shot just 6-of-22 from three. Throw in the another outlandish shooting performance from an opponent, with the Rockets starting the game 9-of-18 from deep, and Brooklyn seemed headed for another disaster.
However, they responded as Vaughn had asked, basing their attitude on defense and physicality, not making shots. Nic Claxton took advantage of the resultant matchups with smaller Rockets from the opening tip:
Clax had an impressive start to this one: pic.twitter.com/6XCW44Yu2U— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 4, 2024
Claxton nearly posted a double-double in the first half with eight points and ten boards, Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer behind Royce O’Neale off the bench. O’Neale not only shot 2-of-4 from three, a welcome sight for the offensively-challenged Nets, but led a defense that finally ratcheted up the activity in passing lanes.
Brooklyn recorded eight steals on their way to forcing a dozen Houston turnovers, which were the biggest reason the Nets took a 50-49 lead into halftime. Their response in the first half was not about making shots — how could it be? — but rather taking care of the little things that led to ten more shot attempts.
While admirable, it merely gave Brooklyn an opportunity, not the upper-hand itself. The Nets would need to finally, mercifully hit some damn shots after the break to run away with a win they played well enough to secure.
It didn’t happen. Once again, the opponent hit three after three, even their poor shooters getting in on the action. Jae’Sean Tate made two of ‘em, Houston’s bench combined to shoot 7-of-13. It didn’t matter; if a player in black shot it, it was going in. If a player in white shot it, it was clanging off the rim.
Brooklyn finished 13-of-44 from three, their fortunes not improving in the second half. Mikal Bridges’ month-long slump showed no signs of slowing with a 5-of-18, 3-of-12 from three performance. For the second straight game, Cam Thomas finished without a field goal, shooting 0-of-7 and scoring two points at the line. He’s now 0-of-18 over two.
“People forget I’m human,” said Thomas in postgame.
We can keep going down the line, mentioning Dorian Finney-Smith’s 1-of-11 shooting from deep or Spencer Dinwiddie taking just five shots in 28 minutes, continuing an astonishing run of passivity. Again, Brooklyn couldn’t even make free throws, finishing 16-of-26.
“I think overall we tried to turn the page and move to the next possession and unfortunately, those possessions were miss shots for us,” said Jacque Vaughn.
We could also mention the positives, like another pair of double-doubles for Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe, or Trenton Watford’s 10-point performance, or Thomas’ season-high five assists, or even that Brooklyn shot seventeen more times than Houston.
But it’d largely be pointless. Another game, another excruciating way to lose, this time because the Nets couldn’t put the ball in the basket. When the threes don’t fall, the offense is ugly, and there’s not much recourse when you look at the roster. Sure, Dinwiddie could assume a larger role, but who really gets to the rim on this team? Who creates easy shots for themselves or others?
Once again, the opposing team had that player on Wednesday night. During the few stretches of game-time where Houston’s threes weren’t falling, they simply dumped it into Şengün, who finished with an easy 30/8/4:
The Wizard gets the and-one ♂️ pic.twitter.com/iSodWYpotO— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) January 4, 2024
When asked what changed the game, Vaughn simply answered, “Şengün, his ability.” He added, “I think we had contained him early, being able to trap him and really get the ball out of his hands... They moved him around a little bit, made it more difficult for us and so he got a chance to get to the rim.”
So, Brooklyn took a 64-59 lead with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter, and then it all fell apart. The Rockets hit some threes and Şengün put in some work, as it became an exercise in futility for Brooklyn. With just under three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Vaughn pulled the plug on his starters, who now faced a 16-point deficit that there was no returning from at 108-92.
In just under 18 minutes of play, Brooklyn’s offense had produced 28 points, a mark you’d roll your eyes at if your favorite NCAA team posted it heading into halftime. But that was the Nets’ story on Wednesday, same as the old one.
“All we need is one game to turn [it around],” said O’Neale. “Everybody hates losing, so once we find it and get our groove back, we’ll get back rolling. Just staying together and being the team we have to be.”
Cam Johnson and Bridges each scored 15 points to lead the way, but the team’s shooting was entirely unwatchable in the second-half. Scratch that, it was unwatchable the whole game, but at least Brooklyn’s grit and grind gave them a fighting chance before halftime.
Claxton had some highlight plays. Johnson hit a couple shots, Sharpe had an impressive block, but the best part of Wednesday’s game was the final buzzer. Nets fans probably wish it arrived sooner.
Spencer Dinwiddie acting out how it feels to watch the Nets right now pic.twitter.com/Gf7lnNFlF6— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 4, 2024
Some individual milestones on a night where the team certainly wasn’t accomplishing too many.
- As mentioned, Cam Thomas matched his season-high with five assists to just one turnover. It wasn’t all bad for the third-year guard.
- If nothing else, Brooklyn’s bigs are cleaning up the boards. Claxton and Sharpe each posted double-doubles, including grabbing 10+ boards in the same game for the sixth time this season, including five such performances since the start of December.
- For Claxton, it marked his 10th double-double of the season which leads the team. The soon-to-be free agent has now recorded four 10x10s in his last five games.
The Nets had hinted that Lonnie Walker may return after his 17 missed games on Friday, when they’ll be back home to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jacque Vaughn gave a brief but positive postgame update on Walker after Wednesday’s loss, saying “all signs point to” the backup guard returning in Brooklyn’s next outing.
“It will be good to get some of our soldiers back,” said Nic Claxton on Walker’s potential return.
Meanwhile. Dennis Smith Jr. missed the second half of the back-to-back with what the Nets officially termed “lower back soreness.” Smith Jr. has already missed 13 games this season with a couple of injuries in that area, the first a sprain in his lower back, the second a sprain in his upper back. In any case, it was a worrying absence for the reserve point guard.
In postgame, Vaughn said Smith Jr. “tried to go through a warm up and just didn’t feel that he could go. So, back soreness and we’ll see what he looks like when we get back home.”
Yep, these guys again. The Nets will travel home for a pair of games, the first against the Western Conference’s number-two seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday night.
- Box Score: Houston Rockets 112, Brooklyn Nets 101 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Houston Rockets 112, Brooklyn Nets 101 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Nic Claxton vs. Rockets / 12 PTS, 13 REB (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Day’Ron Sharpe vs. Rockets / 11 PTS, 12 REB (Video) - NBA
- Jacque Vaughn speaks about the Nets’ loss to the Rockets (Video) - YES Network
- Cam Thomas on his performance against the Rockets (Video) - YES Network
- Royce O’Neale on tough game against Houston (Video) - YES Network
- Nic Claxton: Postgame vs. Rockets (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Alperen Sengun scores 30 points as Rockets hand Nets fifth straight loss, 112-101 - Adam Spolane - AP
- Nets fall apart in second half in loss to Rockets for fifth straight defeat - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Jacque Vaughn vs. Ime Udoka raises question: Did Nets make right hire? - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ effort improved against Rockets, but not enough to prevent 5th straight loss ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Multiple efforts matter, which is why Nets need Day’Ron Sharpe on the court more ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets play a little better, but still lose to Rockets as skid hits five games ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Nets’ lack of intensity is alarming amidst four-game losing streak ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday