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3 Takeaways from Brooklyn Nets loss to Phoenix Suns amid Kevin Durant return

Phoenix Suns v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets got roughly 44 hours to feel good about their seemingly healthy basketball team before the hoop gods said, “Alright, you’ve had enough.”

A mere 44 hours to cash in on their $37 Million investment. It’s like the league threw Sean Marks in one of those money booths where you try to frantically to collect as many flailing single dollar bills as you can before the fair clerk abruptly kicks you after a few seconds.

As you all know by now, Ben Simmons took an awkward fall during his triumphant return’s final few minutes on Monday night. Despite Simmons downplaying it postgame, watching him tumble was like watching a few storm clouds in the distance — surely something that might raise an eyebrow — but nothing threatening, not yet at least.

His PROBABLE injury listing yesterday hit like a few roaring gusts of wind up against your shutters. A bit alarming, but nonetheless, you know you’re safe inside your home. But his downgrade to QUESTIONABLE soon formed like twisters in the distance, prompting you to realize this might be something after all. Hours later, the team designating him as OUT blew your house down.

It’s nothing Nets fans aren’t used to, being the storm (or star) chasers of fanbase that they are. Simmons missed 38 straight contests this year and countless others before that. Regardless, some shelter in the form of a healthy Ben10 would have been much appreciated tonight with the Prodigal Sun Kevin Durant making his own return.

Shorthanded once more, Brooklyn held their own through the first two frames but didn’t have the gas to keep up with the mighty Suns. They fell by a 136-120 final score. Here’s what we learned in the process.

Cam Thomas Needs to...Shoot More?

Yes, I know I’m playing with fire here. But by my eyes, Brooklyn’s natural-born bucket-getter and the king of the circus shot looked a bit too selective by my eyes tonight.

The Suns came out with Jusuf Nurkic in the drop. Like we saw with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Rudy Gobert last week, having a slow big isn’t ideal, but you have to play your guy best guys and play to their strengths. Frank Vogel also took the only route he could tonight.

But with Nurk giving up that space, Thomas, an all too capable shooter, did not make him pay enough, primarily in the opening quarter. Thomas finished the first frame with just four field goal attempts. He found nylon twice to finish the period with four points. That looks fine in the box score, but if you watched, you know he left a lot of food on the table.

Thomas did rack up three assists in that same quarter. Given his already established skills as a scorer but visible room for growth as a passer, you’ll take that in an opening frame for him.

He went on to finish the game with a team-high 25 points and four assists while shooting 11-19 from the field. Even when not assisting on a play, his ability attract defensive pressure and then spread the ball for hockey assist-like plays were by the many this evening.

Those signs of growth in the passing department certainly trump a few missed points in the first quarter for the 22-year-old, in a January game vs as Western Conference team no less. Don’t get confused by my clickbait attempt with the title for this one, this is more so a takeaway about Cam’s growth rather than anything negative.

‘Too Small’

The above line is both a reference to I Think You Should Leave and a testament to Brooklyn’s defensive performance tonight. Without Dorian Finney-Smith, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Simmons, “small ball” took over. Real small.

It’s an understandable back pocket strategy to roll with given the situation at hand. If you’re going to play without size, you might as well buy all the way in and try to reap the benefits such as speed and shooting to the max. But the decisions that followed were questionable to say the least.

The Nets starting possessions with Spencer Dinwiddie guarding Kevin Durant in the first half won my competition for biggest head-scratcher of the evening. Considering how the Nets watched KD cook smaller defenders for three straight years, sometimes even speaking in foreign tongues to embarrass more after the fact, it was a rather odd decision.

The Slim Reaper naturally finished with a game-high 33 points while shooting 10-16 from the field. He also shot 2-6 from deep and dropped eight assists. Typical numbers for the all-time great, just coming at your from an opposing side for the first time at Barclays since 2018.

But whenever Durant wasn’t marooning Dinwiddie on his island, Yusuf Nurkic was bullying inside. Operating a two-man game with Durant, the Bosnian Beast simply took turns outmuscling different Nets such as Cam Johnson, Royce O’Neale, Bridges, or anyone else who ended up between him and the basket after the switch.

“I mean, they played small and they wanted to switch all our actions and slow us down,” Durant told ESPN postgame. “We told Nurk that, ‘You know, you can bury these guys in the post and do whatever you want, so take your time,’ and he got us going there in that first half and we cruised from there.”

That they did. Nurkic also brought his appetite on the offensive glass, finishing with 11 rebounds to go with his 28 points. Nurkic’s also efforts fueled what was a night of gifted possessions for the Suns, as they ended up with nine offensive boards leading to 14 second chance points.

“He’s seven-foot, 280 pounds,” said Bridges summed up postgame. “It’s going to be tough for anybody that’s small to guard him.”

Credit to Phoenix, as they did their homework, realizing Brooklyn’s flimsiness down low and attacking it all the way up until the fourth quarter when the looks from deep finally started to open up. To be fair, it was a rather obvious target to aim for, but the results still gave way to a box score that makes Nurkic look like an all-star. That’s embarrassing in its own right.

With Brooklyn’s current injuries there’s not much of an answer right now, making this takeaway more of a warning for what may to come rather than anything else especially if Simmons’ latest “brief” stint on the injury report turns out like the others.

Mikal Three-Ball is Back

While Mikal Bridges might not live and die by the three, the outside shot is oftentimes a shot of adrenaline to his game. Although he missed a few big ones down the stretch to make Brooklyn’s comeback attempt feel real, he enjoyed that boost from outside for much of the night.

Bridges finished the game with 21 points, going 6-12 from deep. That’s one short of tying his career-high in triples made in a game. He’s now reached that mark in back to back contests. More catch-and-shoot options and shots off hit ahead passes seem to the right catalysts here, as we saw a bevy of each leading to Bridges threes both tonight and Monday.

“We’ve talked about as a group the shots that we want to take,” Jacque Vaughn said. “We definitely stress taking those threes when the defense isn’t set. You see [Mikal’s] getting a lot more of those up. Those become uncontested or lightly contested, they’re in the flow of the offensive, and a lot of times those looks are going to be some of the best looks that we get. He’s learning how to be efficient and adding that three ball more and more to his game.”

Bridges now gets to finish January with 48 triples made, tied for the most by him for any month in his career. While there’s not much to celebrate after a blowout loss, it’s good to know he’s got his guns back, even if Devin Booker stole one from it at the night’s conclusion.