Tonight was a fun one at the Barclay’s Center.
No, that’s not my most intriguing opener to one of these columns, but its something I haven’t been able to type out and you haven’t been able to read very often this season. Cheers to that.
The Nets won at home by a 147-114 landslide, knocking a resurgent Utah Jazz team that looks committed to watering down Danny Ainge’s tank efforts for a second straight season. Ben Simmons returned for the first time since early November. He’s sunk into the injury report several times before this latest plunge, but his efforts to claw his way back to relevancy were different tonight.
With the Nets spiraling, almost zero pressure came with his return. This time, script writers did not cast him as a savior for a team down 0-3 in the playoffs or even a “third star” for a title hopeful. Instead, he got a supporting role, asking him to merely help out a team that frankly had been “just hanging around,” to quote Howard Stern’s most notorious Wack Pack member. Fans weren’t on their knees begging for Simmons to return, but more so welcomed him back with a shrug and a “alright, we’ll see.”
Regardless, Simmons kicked down the doors and said “watch this.” It contributed to what was arguably Brooklyn’s best win of the season and their second straight dub since their pair of contests vs the Detroit Pistons. Here’s what we learned.
Ben Simmons Impact is Real
Simmons gave the Nets exactly what they were looking for upon checking in. The Barclay’s crowd did give him a modest ovation after he tore off his warmup, but him serving fans what they’ve been starving for on a silver platter did a lot in terms of getting those off his back who’ve understandably been frustrated with him.
Almost immediately after check-in in he helped force a steal, then pushed the pace in transition to assist on a Royce O’Neale three. On the. team’s next possession, he poked out two offensive boards, the second of which resulted in a Cam Thomas triple.
That’s two assists in less than two minutes for the team’s lost lamb, but the story didn’t end there. A Utah timeout tried keep him from writing on, but Simmons has more ink in the pen. Once play resumed, he assisted on two more transition buckets, the latter of which was a no-look feed to Royce O’Neale for lay-in.
BEN10 NO LOOK DIME— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 30, 2024
6 Ast in 5 Mins pic.twitter.com/n7kDoXIPt1
No matter how you feel about Simmons, his made an abundantly clear impact tonight. After he checked in the team went on a 20-6 run. By the end of the night, he finished with 10 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds. He was a +26 in just 18 minutes played and exited to an ovation that made his pre-game one sound like those polite applauses you get when something new is revealed at an art gallery.
“You see how other people played so well tonight because the impact of Ben Simmons. It’s that simple,” Jacque Vaughn said. “The looks that we got tonight. The amount of threes that we got tonight. The fast break points that we got tonight. The uncontested looks that we got tonight. The pace that we played with. This is a team that’s been rolling. Utah’s been rolling, 120 points in last 11 games. So we did it on both ends of the floor and Ben deserves an extreme amount of credit the way you played.”
Ben10 especially helped Brooklyn’s best players get good looks, a wonderful sight to see for a team that’s feels like it has to switch on and off between Thomas and Bridges nights. Simmons kept Brooklyn’s biggest guns locked and loaded, assisting on 10 points for Thomas. He assisted on one early 3-pointer for Bridges, but also got a number of hockey-like assists too, as Bridges was a +27 with Simmons on the floor with him tonight and finished with a team-high 33 points.
“I let things develop throughout the course of the game,” said Simmons. “One thing I’ve learned is patience. Let things develop over time, you bring the ball down, you see everything, and I think I just read the game a certain way.”
You saw more highlight plays with him even while tied to a minutes restriction tonight than we may have seen from the Nets since mid-December.
“You know what his name is,” Lonnie Walker IV said of Simmons when asked if he was surprised about his quickly he found his grove after checking in. “It’s no disrespect. I just think his ability to pass, that really elevates this team consistently. Everybody’s running. It hit a point where I was even like, ‘He’s still running. As soon as he catches it he’s gone.’ Not fully surprised but he puts in the work, he puts in the time. Day by day I see him standing in there.”
It will take more efforts like this from Simmons, and of course him staying healthy, to push back against the notion that his time in Brooklyn has been nothing other than a colossal and expensive failure. But if this doesn’t crash and burn like seemingly every other good thing does with this team. If this is real, than there may be hope after all for this team — and tonight was a first look at it.
Gang Rebounding Has Arrived
Switching everything on defense more often than not puts you at a disadvantage on the boards. The omni-present concentration on the ball-handler more often than not takes bigs out of position to secure the glass. Seasoned Nets fans know this all too well, as Brooklyn switched for years and as a result looked like a team allergic to rebounding for all of them.
Long story short, the Nets started playing more drop to to fix that earlier this year, but a horrendous stretch of perimeter defense forced them to revive the switch. But as the Nets welcomed back that old strategy, the issues that once came with it were stopped by security at the Barclay’s Center front door.
While there’s been a few poor rebounding games mixed in, yes, I’m primarily looking at that ugly Portland game, the Nets have held their own on the glass for the most part since starting to switch again. Tonight was another example of that, as the Nets not only kept pace with Utah, but surpassed them on the glass, winning by a 50-44 margin.
It’s important to note that the Nets did not do this against some scrub team either. The Jazz rank second in the league in rebound percentage, just trailing the notoriously gritty New York Knicks. They also did it without two of their top rebound per game guys in Dorain Finney-Smith and Day’Ron Sharpe.
Nic Claxton led the way with 10 boards while Simmosn grabbed eight. But with guys like Cam Johnson grabbing six, Royce O’Neale chipping in with four, and even the 6’3” Cam Thomas pulling down seven — yes — the Cam Thomas who is thought of as nothing more than a shot-chucker by a certain faction of the fanbase, the Nets made it clear they know how to gang rebound.
If they can continue to do that, they’ll be able to keep switching, and with the Nets equipped with arguably the most versatile defensive roster in the league between Simmons, Finney-Smith, Bridges, and Johnson, and others, the rest of the league needs to look out. The top-tier defense we all expected to see at the start of the season might finally be here. Better late than never.
Nets vs the 2-3 Zone
Being a Syracuse guy who witnessed Jim Boeheim’s downfall in person, I’m quite sensitive to the 2-3 zone. In this modern age of hoops, it rendered my college basketball team obsolete during my undergrad years. But tonight, it momentarily stalled the Nets as if it were the early 2000s.
Via some tough iso-buckets from Thomas and the team stealing a few points off hustle plays, the Nets kept stride, still carrying a double digit lead into the half after Utah launched the zone toward the end of the first quarter. But those who look beyond the box score and watched the game saw the Nets pump the brakes a bit when faced with it.
Looking unsure of where to move the rock, the Nets struggled to get high-percentage looks late in the first and early in the second. They also neglected to penetrate the top of the zone and then attack the baseline where it weakens up.
However, the Nets hit enough tough looks and stayed active in transition to even out their deficiencies in the half court during this experiment from Utah. For that reason, the Jazz likely did not bring the zone back out of the halftime tunnel with them, as the results likely weren’t good enough to warrant a revival. But if there’s anything for the Nets to work on tonight though, its breaking that old school defensive look.