Let’s see if we can make it a winning streak. After losing five in a row, the Brooklyn Nets rebounded with a decisive, 124-115 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder to start the weekend, before they faced the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday afternoon.
It was the second of two games at the Barclays Center for the Nets, a brief respite before the team heads to Paris to play the Cleveland Cavaliers. Besides a couple of seven-hour flights, it represents a break in the schedule for Brooklyn, the only game they’ll play in an eight-day stretch. (The Nets also get a break being designated as the ‘away’ team in Paris.)
So, Sunday’s game vs. a feisty yet offensively challenged Portland team was a chance to establish some much-needed momentum. Eating baguettes and climbing the Eiffel Tower would certainly be more enjoyable with two wins in Brooklyn’s back-pocket, firmly on the climb back to .500.
Well, you can throw all that out the window. It turns out Brooklyn’s victory over the Thunder was just a brief bump in the road downhill. Once again, the Nets were beaten from deep, as Portland hit 20 threes to dish out a devastating loss at the Barclays Center. Rinse and repeat. Perhaps there’s no scenario in which Brooklyn should be losing to a team like the Blazers, but more likely, that’s giving the Nets too much credit.
“Yeah, very disappointing. Just overall to not win this basketball game, extremely disappointing,” said a seething Jacque Vaughn after the game.
Final Score: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Brooklyn Nets 127.
The Portland Trail Blazers are an unusual team. They rank dead last in the NBA in field-goal percentage, led by a stable of young guards still figuring NBA offense out and midrange-lover Jerami Grant. And yet, for all the flaws that have led them to a 9-25 record, Portland wins the damn possession battle.
The Blazers entered Sunday’s contest 5th in offensive rebounding and 3rd in forcing turnovers, per Cleaning the Glass. They don’t always capitalize on those extra possessions, but they are not an easy team to deal with.
“That’s going to be the deciding factor in today’s game, that shot margin,” said Jacque Vaughn pregame.
And in the first half, the shot margin looked like it’d decide the game in Portland’s favor. They forced nine Brooklyn turnovers and matched the Nets with four offensive rebounds, resulting in four more shooting possessions. Worse yet, the Blazers corrected their fatal flaw, shooting 7-of-15 from three while the Nets floundered from deep. So how did Brooklyn take a 52-50 lead into the half?
24 minutes of dominant big man play from Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe. Claxton finished the night with 16 points and 11 boards, but recorded four blocks, completely shutting off the interior for Portland. After switching many actions vs. OKC, Claxton went back to playing consistent drop defense vs. Grant & co., while continuing to bring the end-to-end energy we’ve seen in recent games:
Pretty nice trio of possessions for Nic Claxton even after getting kicked in the jewels. And a great pass from Royce: pic.twitter.com/iWZmKUXmbM— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 7, 2024
Sharpe relieved Clax to the tune of nine points by the break, again showcasing his connection with Dennis Smith Jr. off the bench, as the two connected for multiple looks at the rim. Brooklyn’s bigs were largely responsible for the team’s 26-to-14 advantage in points in the paint, which saved an ominous first half from outright panic.
Vaughn said he was “disappointed in the amount of possessions we gave away, whether we were up seven in the first quarter and the second quarter, and we give away possessions by being cute and not being simple. Those possessions get you a two-point lead at halftime instead of a 12-point lead, and that’s why we got a ball game.”
The Nets would pick up their offense and limit turnovers after the break, but things still felt uneasy. Portland played even more zone defense, and Brooklyn responded by bombing away from deep. The hosts were unconscious in the third quarter, shooting 8-of-12 from deep. Dorian Finney-Smith made a couple, as did Cam Johnson on his way to 17 point on 11 shots, but Mikal Bridges had the most impressive outing of the night.
He scored 12 of his game-high 42 points in the third quarter, joining in on the fun from three:
Mikal Bridges has taken 15 shots today, but 7 of them have been from deep, and five FTs. A much more efficient scorer when he has this quick trigger: pic.twitter.com/F9pUSE3TlS— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 7, 2024
Bridges’ explanation for his success was simple: “Getting to spots, making them. I still think I missed a lot that I should have made, but the ball was going in.
Still, the Nets couldn’t pull away, despite scoring 41 points in the third quarter. The Blazers matched them shot for shot, led by Grant and Anfernee Simons. The two hardly had any wide-open looks, but instead made tough jumpers off the dribble look effortless.
Portland just kept hanging around, and in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn reaped what they sowed. Their 93-85 lead to start the frame turned into a 108-101 deficit after seven minutes of painstaking offense. Lonnie Walker, in his second game back, stayed glued to the bench after six scoreless minutes in the first half.
Cam Thomas finished with nine points on nine shots — and sported a bandage over his eye after taking an elbow early — but only had 18 minutes to get going. After a pedestrian start to the fourth quarter, he was subbed out, as Jacque Vaughn insisted on defense. But a lineup featuring Dennis Smith Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and one of Claxton or Sharpe couldn't stop Portland from raining down threes and grabbing offense boards while stalling out on offense.
Eventually, the Nets recovered to turn the final few minutes into a nail-biting affair. Smith Jr. (10/2/10) assumed primary ball-handling duties as Spencer Dinwiddie (5/3/5) sat on the bench. And although Claxton carried five fouls, Sharpe was sitting in the locker room with an apparent knee injury. Tension mounted. Bridges hit some huge shots to close the gap, but was on his way to 39 total minutes.
Scratch that, 44:
Bridges hit that step-back jumper to send the game to overtime, cementing his first star-level game in some time and giving the Nets one more chance to right their wrongs.
It merely prolonged the anxiety. Brooklyn just couldn’t stop Simons, ultimately throwing up their hands and double-teaming him above the arc, even with Smith Jr. on the court. On consecutive possessions, Simons passed out of the double to an unguarded Malcom Brogdon, who swished home consecutive triples en route to an OT takeover.
When asked what went wrong in the extra period, Vaughn simply said, “Malcolm Brogdon. Six, seven, eight points at the rim, two threes. Because Simons got it going early, we had to double team him; that’s what happens when you give guys confidence and you have to react to them.”
Shaedon Sharpe had 21 points on 14 shots, Grant scored 27, and Simons exploded for 38 points and 11 assists. Eventually, Vaughn decided to sell out to stop Simons, but by then, it was too late. The Nets didn’t make one Blazer beat them; they all did.
Said Bridges: “Our defense is predicated on protecting the paint, so we give up, threes, and it’s tough when you play teams with guys that can shoot. It hurts.”
Portland shot a ridiculous 20-of-38 from three; perhaps it’s surprising that they didn't bury Brooklyn earlier. Yet, Bridges scored from all three levels, operating with the mindset of a star, while the Nets limited turnovers in the second half and won the rebounding battle.
None of the positives matter, though, when the scoreboard shows another loss. If there was ever a time for moral victories, it’s not after a loss to one of the league’s bottom-tier teams. Not after 16 games in 29 days ends with a 3-13 record.
It’s the same old story, once again.
“We get to play in a couple of days. That’s all I said to them. That’s all I had for them.” - Jacque Vaughn
While Cam Thomas catching an elbow to the face is unfortunate, it doesn’t appear to be of long-term concern, and wasn’t addressed postgame. The same, however, cannot be said for Day’Ron Sharpe.
According to Vaughn, the backup center is scheduled for an MRI on his left knee on Monday morning, and will stay behind as his teammates travel to Paris. It could be a brutal blow for the Nets, and is incredibly unfortunate timing for Sharpe, playing the best ball of his career to date.
One man headed up a somber edition of milestones for Brooklyn on Sunday.
- Mikal Bridges notched his third 40-burger of the season, and the sixth of his career. They've all come as a Brooklyn Net, who are now 3-3 in such games.
- Nic Claxton’s four blocked shots tied a season-high, but it wasn’t a rare performance for the 24-year-old. Claxton has now blocked four shots in six games this season.
Dennis Smith Jr. Dunks
Let’s end on a happy note, because we couldn’t wrap this one up without discussing Dennis Smith Jr.’s acrobatics. In the first half, he caught a lob off the backboard from Royce O’Neale:
Nets run a half-court trap after a timeout, force a TO, and Royce throws it off the board for DSJ: pic.twitter.com/QXGn5qwqXh— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 7, 2024
It’s a happy coincidence that Vince Carter was broadcasting his second game for YES Network, as one of the NBA’s greatest dunkers of all time was in the building to joke with Smith Jr. at halftime that he should’ve finished the play with a windmill.
Smith Jr. may have took the jab seriously, because he responded in the fourth quarter with the poster of the season for the Brooklyn Nets, then pointed at VC in the broadcast booth:
OH— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 7, 2024
DENNIS SMITH JR. POSTER pic.twitter.com/BzRUEcexXN
It’s a shame the dunk didn’t come in a win, because man. That was nasty.
- Box Score: Portland Trail Blazer 134, Brooklyn Nets 127 (OT) - NBA
- Game Highlights: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Brooklyn Nets 127 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Mikal Bridges vs. Blazers / 42 PTS (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Highlights: Nic Claxton vs. Blazers / 16 PTS, 11 REB (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Jacque Vaughn on Nets’ frustrating loss to Portland (Video) - YES Network
- Mikal Bridges on the Nets’ overtime loss to Portland (Video) - YES Network
- Cam Johnson on Brooklyn’s difficulties on defense (Video) - YES Network
- Trail Blazers nearly flawless overtime in 134-127 victory over Nets - AP
- Nets waste Mikal Bridges’ 42 points in ‘frustrating’ overtime loss to Trail Blazers - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Day’Ron Sharpe’s status unclear as sprained knee leaves Nets thin at center - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ Mikal Bridges finds his groove in disappointing loss to Trail Blazers ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets Notebook: Brooklyn waives Armoni Brooks, Trendon Watford and Harry Giles III now fully guaranteed ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Nets lose in overtime to Blazers as same old troubles pop up ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Trail Blazers, led with 38 points from Anfernee Simons, win 134-127 in overtime at Brooklyn Nets ($) - Aaron Fentress - The Oregonian