Since taking down the Oklahoma City Thunder two days ago, the Brooklyn Nets have been standing off in the corner, rubbing their hands together with a mischievous grin on their faces. On the heels of an inspiring victory and with a single-digit win team coming into town next, the perfect opportunity to do the most “Brooklyn Nets” thing ever and drop a weird and ultimately disappointing loss befell them.
The Nets cashed in, giving their fans a marquee “are you kidding me?” loss today and falling the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime by a 134-127 score. Their defensive woes from their five game losing streak returned with a vengeance. A Mikal Bridges masterclass amidst the roughest stretch of his career went out the window. Day’Ron Sharpe hurt his knee, leaving the game in a wheelchair, and Cam Thomas got some stitches. looking like a Civil War soldier in his head bandage. Ugly stuff to say the least.
The Nets will have some time to let this one stew with their next game coming in Paris on Thursday. Here’s three things to takeaway from the gut punch.
A Mixed Bag on Defense
The Brooklyn Nets took it personal every time a Trail Blazer veered into the paint today. Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe were like two bouncers outside a packed bar, standing firm with their arms crossed and ready to reject anyone coming their way.
But from beyond the arc, Brooklyn’s was more like a security team trying to stop college kids from storming the field after an upset victory. If you want a visual of what I’m talking about, look up the ending of Ole Miss vs LSU from a few months ago.
Claxton tied his season-high for the fifth time with four blocks today. Even when he wasn’t rejecting shots, he was deterring them. Playing more of the drop than we saw vs the Thunder, he and Sharpe forced the Blazers to shoot 35.7% in the paint. As a result, the Nets outscored them there 62-38. Pure domination.
Nic Claxton impacting shots at the rim in the drop coverage. Leads to a transition bucket. pic.twitter.com/JNzTpltVDX— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) January 7, 2024
Brooklyn doing the exact opposite from around the arc was solely what led to the loss. The Nets were downing out at sea earlier this week with three point waves from their opponents crashing onto them over and over again While their game against OKC was a brief moment for them to stick their heads above the water and take a breath, Portland submerged them again, shooting 52.6% from deep.
Today, it was Brooklyn’s excessive blitzing that hurt them rather than the extra help in the gap we’re used to seeing. On every screen for Anfernee Simons, the Nets sent two at him. Essentially, this was Jacque Vaughn challenging Portland’s other players to make shots — which they did over, and over, and over again.
Why the Nets continued to let Portland shoot when they proved themselves as a team capable of making them pay from deep for almost an hour makes zero sense to me. Why they continued to blitz with having Dennis Smith Jr., a guy they signed to be a defensive stopper, play his second most minutes in a game tonight is also devoid of any logic. The Nets won in almost every metric today. With all that said, it’s difficult to not pin this loss anywhere other than the decisions of the coaching staff.
This Team Won’t Be Good Until it Upgrades at Point Guard
Anfernee Simons absolutely torched the Nets tonight. He went for 38 points and dished out 11 assists. It was an upfront view of what they’ve been missing for some time now.
Dennis Smith Jr. closed the game for Brooklyn. Although Dinwiddie started, he did not return after the 8:51 mark in the fourth quarter. Even with the Nets needing to play an extra five minutes, they kept Dinwiddie on the shelf in favor of their drive-and-defend only ball-handler. For as great as Smith Jr. has been this year, at the end of the day, that’s what he is.
Smith Jr. can drive, but his touch around the rim is iffy when he’s not throwing down a monster slam. His lacking jump shot also makes it difficult for the Nets to find spacing with him on the floor. On the other side of things, Dinwiddie can shoot unlike Smith, but either refuses to penetrate inside anymore or just lost ability to do so.
Essentially, each guy has offsetting shortcomings that collectively handcuff Brooklyn’s offense, hence why it went stale in the fourth quarter today. They struggled to get downhill and create any sort of drive and kick game. All we got were more dribble handoffs for the wings that went nowhere. That’s what allowed the Blazers to come back and at one point take an multi-possession lead midway through the fourth.
As long as the Nets stick with Dinwiddie and Smith Jr., they’ll never be competitive. Being such a wing-heavy team, they need a guy who can put pressure on the rim to open things up but also stretch the floor just enough to keep the defense honest. Neither guy can do that consistently for this team — it’s a big part of why the offense struggles in the half court and the team keeps losing.
Here’s Claxton’s Chance to Make a Bag
For all the wrong reasons, it feels like a high usage stretch for Nic Claxton is on the way. I hope I’m wrong but Sharpe’s injury tonight looked like something that may sideline him for some time. He’s already ruled out for the Paris game and will get an MRI tomorrow.
With that happening in between two standout performances for Claxton, it’s a perfect storm for his usage to go up in the future, as his play and the now lacking center depth will warrant him extra touches...
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
It’s fitting, as Claxton’s name has been mentioned quite often with trade season now approaching. The Nets cannot extend him, so if they want to bring him back, they’ll need to do so on a new deal this summer. They do have his Bird Rights. What that might cost compared to what Brooklyn could get for him at the deadline has been on the mind of just about every Nets fan these past few weeks.
I’m still leaning toward the latter in the trade or pay question for Claxton. He’s too rare a talent to give up on in today’s game and the Nets can always deal him down the line if they see fit as well. I don’t know how the front office feels, but I do know these next couple games will give them all the evidence they need to make that decision. Keep extra eye on him over the next few weeks.