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Brooklyn Nets hang not-so-tough in 136-120 defeat to Phoenix Suns

Kevin Durant’s return to the Barclays Center was a joyous one. For him, anyway.

Phoenix Suns v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The debate on how much love to show Kevin Durant in his return to the Barclays Center continued into game-action. Wednesday’s Barclays Center crowd gave a mixed reaction to a muted tribute video before learning toward boos after tip-off:

We even got some excellent content out of the petty drama:

But ultimately, there was a game to be played, even if the lines between the sideshow and the main event started to blur.

Brooklyn entered the game short-handed, and thus, small. Ben Simmons had an excellent return in his first game back, but was ruled out for Wednesday’s game with a left knee contusion. Dorian Finney-Smith (left ankle sprain) and Day’Ron Sharpe (right knee hyperextension) joined Simmons on the bench, unable to help their squad against the high-powered Phoenix Suns.

The visitors were missing Grayson Allen, but had all of their “Big Three” available. And for all of Bradley Beal’s injuries, when he joins KD and Devin Booker on the court, Phoenix rolls. They entered the Barclays Center outscoring opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possessions with those three on the court, enough to strike fear into any NBA opponent.

Yet, it wasn’t any of Phoenix’s all-world scorers that tortured the Nets in the first half. Instead, it was Jusuf Nurkić, who camped out in the paint, tuning up his smaller opponents for 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting before the break:

The Nets sold out to lock up the perimeter, daring one of the NBA’s worst finishers at the center position to eat down low. And that he did.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “But those are shots that the other three weren’t taking, which we were okay with. You don’t want to double-team Jusuf Nurkić in order to give up shots to Eric Gordon, Beal, and Booker, and Durant. That’s just not smart basketball. So we missed some people tonight in order to have another big body out there to fix some of those things when Nurk was just rolling to the rim.”

Mikal Bridges conceded that the size difference was simply all-encompassing, and couldn’t be scrubbed over with X’s and O’s: “I’m not sure I have answers. If I did, probably would have changed something up.”

However, the Nets kept pace themselves, and only trailed 64-61 at the break thanks to same symmetrical scoring. Spencer Dinwiddie, showcasing more downhill oomph than he has of late, scored eight points. Three other starters scored ten exactly, and Mikal Bridges, spurred by his newfound quick trigger from deep, put up a dozen:

Both teams kept scoring in the third quarter, but the visitors turned the pace from strong to absurd.

Brooklyn couldn’t stop the Suns’ front-court — Nurkić put up a monster 28-and-11, while Kevin Durant led all scorers with 33/5/8. The two combined to shoot 21-of-31 on the night, but even worse, their capable supporting cast turned it up a notch after the half.

The Suns shot 9-of-15 from deep in the second half, capitalizing on every Brooklyn mistake and putting pressure on the home team’s offense that ultimately made them crack. Phoenix's 56-to-50 edge in paint-points doesn’t leap off the stat-sheet, until you consider their 24-of-32 performance from the free-throw line.

“With a team like that, you know they’re going to shoot well, just those three guys at a high level, so we had to pick our battles tonight,” said Vaughn. “And a piece of that was trying to win the shot battle, shot margin. And then without Ben, Doe and Day’Ron tonight Nurkić was a load for us. And made us pay, his opportunities.”

The score after three quarters was a reasonable final a decade ago, as the Suns took a 111-98 lead into the final frame. Offensively, Brooklyn did what they could to keep pace. Even without Simmons, the Nets scored 20 fast-break points, and dished 28 assists to 11 turnovers.

Mikal Bridges, who racked up another 40 minutes, scored 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting, while Cam Thomas led the way with 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Lonnie Walker played his highest minute-total since returning from injury, scoring 19 points in his 30 minutes of floor-time. Cam Johnson had an efficient night as well, scoring 18 on 6-of-12 shooting.

No single Net can be blamed for this loss, at least not offensively. Rather, the team was punched in the face, over and over again trying to defend a team that just had too many horses. Vaughn did throw Harry Giles III out there for a couple ticks at the end of the third quarter, but Bradley Beal drove downhill twice, first creating an open corner three and then getting all the way to the rack. Brooklyn looked helpless, and KD had to let the Barclays Center know it, even in good fun:

“Any time I can score on Cam and talk s—t to him, man,” said Durant of that play. “We’ve been doing that since I’ve known him. He’s my brother and I gotta teach him a lesson if he’s going to guard me out there.”

Brooklyn managed to hang around so that you couldn’t change the channel, but never really inspired faith they’d come back. Some late trapping inflated the score, but when Bridges missed a transition three to cut the deficit to seven with three minutes remaining, that was it.

He’d pay a cruel comeuppance just a few moments later:

And that was the story on Wednesday night. It's only been a month-and-a-half on the calendar since Brooklyn’s best win of the season, spoiling the debut of Phoenix’s Big Three on the road, but it feels like it’s been years.

Since that epic win on December 13, Brooklyn is 6-and-18. The most recent loss wasn’t the most painful, not a total collapse in the fourth quarter in a winnable game. It did, however, paint the starkest dividing line between their situation and that of their former superstar.

Kevin Durant’s squad rolled into the Barclays Center and flexed, danced, and laughed at their opponents. Was it malicious? No.

But it stung like a—

Final Score: Phoenix Suns 136, Brooklyn Nets 120

Milestone Watch

The fat numbers on the scoreboard mean we have some individual milestone to cover.

  • Lonnie Walker IV dished out seven assists, a new career-high for the high-flying guard.
  • Cam Thomas has now scored 25+ points in four straight games, a new single-season career-high. He’s also scored at least 20 in eight of the last ten games.
  • Mikal Bridges made six 3-pointers, a mark he’s hit three times in his last five games. Prior to that stretch, he had only reached that mark five times in his career.
  • Bridges also finishes January with 48 made triples, matching a career-high for a single month (March 2023).
  • The Nets, for all their defensive flaws, recorded 11 steals against Phoenix. This is the first time Brooklyn has registered 10+ steals in three straight games since the 2016-17 season (10/29 - 11/4/16 = four straight).

Love is in the air

Despite some very minor hostility from the Barclays Center crowd, KD’s return to the borough was full of love and positivity. It started pregame, with Jacque Vaughn praising his former player: “For me, my experience with Kevin I’ll never forget. And for me, in the world of negativity, it was a positive experience for me. K made me a better coach. And there’s one thing that I never, ever doubted: When I was a part of a staff or coaching him as a head coach, going into a game, he wanted to win that game. And that competitiveness and that ability to show up every night is special. And he is a special human being.”

Postgame, Durant reciprocated the love: “[Vaughn] impacted me tremendously. How he moved as a coach, how he communicated with us, it’s something I’m going to take with me for the rest of my career.”

And whether it was on his relationship with Cam Thomas, Nets fans, or New York City in general, Durant continued to spill his feelings on his time in BK. The attitude? All love.

Next Up

Philadelphia 76ers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After an extra day off, the Brooklyn Nets will try to right the ship against the Philadelphia 76ers on the road. Tip-off from Philly is scheduled for Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. ET.