The main story of Tuesday night’s contest between the Brooklyn Nets and the Dallas Mavericks did not offer much. Kyrie Irving made his first return to the Barclays Center since Brooklyn traded him to Dallas at last season’s trade deadline, but other than an interesting mix of boos and cheers, there wasn’t much to report.
Brooklyn gave their former guard a tribute ... well not a video, but a perfunctory ‘thank you,’ grouping him in with ex-Nets Markieff Morris and Seth Curry. Perhaps Irving felt slighted, or perhaps he just wanted to gently remind his old team of what they’re missing. Hooping, after all, was never the issue.
Irving led all scorers with 21 in the first half, and would continue trading places with his Batman, Luka Dončić, all night for the scoring lead. However, the visiting Mavs would not do the same, maintaining a chokehold on the Nets that ranged from deadly to uncomfortable, but never in doubt.
While the Nets struggled to guard Dallas’ dynamic back-court in the first half, the offensive end was an even bigger issue. Cam Thomas and Mikal Bridges improved on their dreadful performances from Monday night, but were carrying a heavy burden amid the absences of Cam Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV. On top of which, Ben Simmons had returned, meaning that space in the half-court was even more of an issue...
Claxton-Simmons spacing moment: pic.twitter.com/vORtYnlNRD— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
Still, Simmons re-iterated his desire to remain in the starting lineup post-game: “That’s my preference, yeah ... I want to start. You know, I’m more useful starting than off the bench.”
That being said, Bridges and Thomas never let go of the wheel. Bridges once again lit it up from three, shooting 5-of-11 to finish with 28 points. Thomas shot just 6-of-16, but navigated the floor much more smoothly, even in a crowded paint, to finish with a near triple-double: 16/8/8....
Cam Thomas does not have an easy job w/ the way DAL is loading up on his drives, but he's been better tonight. Not just making shots, but passing out of drives.— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
Six assists, one turnover: pic.twitter.com/EyNchSJ6Xn
Much of the difference between the Bridges/Thomas and Kyrie/Luka pairs, at least in the first half, was their supporting cast. Dallas took a 65-47 lead into the break on the strength of their ancillary 3-point shooting.
The non-star Mavs shot 6-of-11 from deep, their looks often a result of aggressive traps sent Dončić’s way. For Brooklyn, the only role player to hit a three was Royce O’Neale, who shot 2-of-6 from beyond. Thomas and Bridges did what they could, but they didn’t have the horses to truly compete.
The Nets came out of the locker room in zombie mode, look prepared to surrender the game’s final 24 minutes. The traps on Dončić grew more aggressive, but the back-line rotations fell apart completely:
Here are Brooklyn's first three possessions of the second half. No idea what they're doing off Luka doubles, and Simmons unable to finish on the inside.— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
Might be time to let the G-League guys take over: pic.twitter.com/vBqGhCwpoI
I was wrong, however, to suggest a punt on the second night of this back-to-back.
The Nets battled, behind improved defense and 3-point shooting. Jacque Vaughn even broke the in-case-of-emergency glass, sticking Nic Claxton on Dončić for a bit.
Nets say screw it, no more doubling/trapping Luka, let's just put Nic Claxton on him.— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
On the first two possessions, Clax forces an airball and then punches a shot off the glass: pic.twitter.com/3ETAtYmgCz
Said Vaughn: “I thought Nic’s ability on dodge as we switch things up to guard him and to really get some stops was impressive. I mean Nic has been playing some unbelievable basketball, probably the best that I’ve seen him since I’ve been around him,
Claxton, who ended up with five blocks, was able to contain the Slovenian superstar, but just for a bit. While Brooklyn fell down by 23 points and admirably cut it to single-digits multiple times, Luka (35/18/9) and Kyrie (36) always had an answer.
“It’s difficult,” said Bridges on guarding the pair. “Both lethal scorers and willing to find other guys as well. So you see what they did tonight, what they do when they’re both playing, it’s tough to deal with.”
At least Jalen Wilson stood out as a bright spot in Brooklyn’s faux-comeback. The rookie put up ten points in 18 minutes, bringing the well-rounded hustle Nets fans have come to expect from his short stints in the big leagues.
Royce O’Neale even finished as Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer with 18 points on 4-of-11 from three, but he, Bridges, and Thomas were missing that last piece of the puzzle.
Spencer Dinwiddie appeared uninterested in the team's offense until the final five minutes of the game, when he repeatedly drove the lane, almost as if to troll the Nets fans that have been begging for such activity for a month. Simmons produced a healthy 9/9/7 stat-line in 20 minutes, overcoming some of his offensive deficiencies in the second half by pushing the pace and hitting the offensive glass...
Mikal throws it up and Ben throws it down, Nets still down 14 though: pic.twitter.com/MZ3GLd1fe4— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
It just wasn’t enough, and the hole Brooklyn dug in the first half was too steep to fully climb out of. It wasn’t necessarily the new-fangled starting lineup, featuring Dinwiddie/Thomas/Bridges/Simmons/Claxton, but the play of the team as a whole. Dennis Smith Jr. was merely alright in his 18 minutes, scoring six points but ultimately hurting the half-court offense.
We even saw brief cameos from Trendon Watford and Noah Clowney, who combined for seven minutes of play in the first half, but they were mere bumps in the road for Dallas’ offense, no different from their more experienced teammates.
There were positives from Brooklyn’s semi-competitive loss (to a team also on the second night of a back-to-back). Bridges and Thomas played like true professionals in a tough offensive situation. For all of Simmons’ misgivings, the Nets won his 20 minutes by a point, and he helped spark them in the second half. Claxton’s defense remains unimpeachable. Wilson looks fun.
Vaughn said he was “extremely pleased that our guys showed some resilience and some fight. Talked about that at halftime: Just keep it simple, and just go play against the dudes in the other jersey that are across from you, and our guys really responded.”
But the team and its fans can only take so many moral victories, now 50 games into a season that has long lost its appeal.
So when the Nets cut their deficit to 107-101, and Kyrie Irving nonchalantly came down the floor to splash back-to-back, game-sealing threes, it was enough to make you miss the guy in black-and-white.
Not the most impressive group of milestones, but we got ‘em for ya.
- The rook Jalen Wilson notched his second-career double-digit performance, now in a dozen appearances with Brooklyn this season.
- The Nets handed out 33 assists on 41 field-goals vs. Dallas, this sixth time they’ve reached the 30-plus mark in just nine games with Ben Simmons available. They’ve only done so five times without the Aussie in the lineup.
- Nic Claxton has now blocked four-or-more shots in three straight games.
- It only took Cam Thomas one half to match his career-high in assists with six. His eight dimes in total, of course, do represent a new career-best.
Prior to Tuesday’s action, Jacque Vaughn gave yet another injury update. With his Nets dressing only 11 players. which included three two-way contracts, how could he not?
However, the update didn’t answer much. Cam Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV each suffered injuries in Monday’s contest (adductor tightness and left hamstring tightness, respectively), and thus, underwent MRIs on Tuesday. However, as of Vaughn’s presser, the Nets were still “assessing” the results.
Walker’s absence is particularly concerning, given that he missed 17 consecutive games earlier this season with a left hammy injury.
Elsewhere, Dorian Finney-Smith and Day’Ron Sharpe remain sidelined, with DFS still on a ‘day-to-day’ designation, per Vaughn.
And hey, so do Markieff Morris and Seth Curry. And you can throw in Jared Dudley, now coaching with the Cavs, and Devin Harris, currently a color commentator with Bally Sports Southwest, too.
Brooklyn did not treat Irving’s return as anything special, acknowledging him along with Morris and Curry in a virtual greeting card, essentially:
No pregame tribute video for Kyrie Irving like the one Kevin Durant received in his first game back at Barclays Center last week.— Peter Sblendorio (@petersblendorio) February 7, 2024
Instead, the #Nets issue a brief “welcome back” to Irving, Seth Curry and Markieff Morris pic.twitter.com/Wrahjo7s6z
The semi-audible boos in Peter Splendorio’s attached post were much louder during the game, as the Barclays Center crowd was not shy in voicing their displeasure with the West Orange native. Some of them, anyway.
As with Stephen Curry’s appearance in Brooklyn on Monday night, Luka Dončić had plenty of supporters in attendance, and thus, de-facto Mavericks fans. Irving was booed heartily when he started to handle the rock, but as the ball ripped nylon, the crowd cheered. Quintessentially Nets:
every Kyrie possession sounds the same. starts with heavy booing, then cheers from a sizable Dallas/Luka contingent if he scores pic.twitter.com/AqBqqSp4FD— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 7, 2024
Irving also threw a dig at Mayor Eric Adams regarding the private-sector vaccine mandate that held the guard out of home games for much of the 2021-’22 season, captured by a fan sitting court-side:
On the whole, though, Irving’s return was understated. Both parties treated it like a business trip, and that it became.
Irving’s post-game presser was juicier, but only slightly. The 13-year vet spoke for nearly ten minutes, covering a wide-range of topics. As he has before, Irving acknowledged the early 2000’s New Jersey Nets as a major inspiration for his professional basketball career, mentoring young players like Claxton and Thomas, and the friends and family he made in Brooklyn.
“It felt like I was home tonight.”
However, Irving also cagily discussed his exit from the Nets, and some of the more unsavory aspects of his time with the franchise.
“For me, it was bigger than a championship here,” he said. “I had to really take some moral stances that propelled me into a place in my life that I had to become accustomed to. There was some political things that were going on here that I couldn’t control, that I was responsible for. There was some things that I did on my accord, that I look back on and they were mistakes. And I have to be accountable for those things.”
He continued: “The conversations that needed to be had weren’t had before the trade deadline ... It was time for me to get my own peace of mind and go somewhere where I was able to thrive.”
In other words, nothing new to Nets fans. Irving did not get into any unknown specifics about not taking the COVID-19 vaccine, instead vaguely referencing the situation. He did the same with the contract negotiations that fizzled out before last season’s trade deadline, leading to his departure.
On the perception of his time in Brooklyn, Irving simply said: “I’m just going to let it run its course. Hopefully in the next few years it’s done.”
After Tuesday night, he may not have to wait so long.
Flashbacks to France? The Nets will take on a Cleveland Cavaliers team that’s been absolutely dominant as of late, 14-1 in their last 15 games. The Cavs will be traveling on a back-to-back though, as they play the Washington Wizards on Wednesday evening.
Tip-off vs. Cleveland is set for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night from the Barclays Center, four-and-a-half hours after the NBA trade deadline. It could be a busy 48 hours for Brooklyn until then.
- Box Score: Dallas Mavericks 119, Brooklyn Nets 107 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Dallas Mavericks 119, Brooklyn Nets 107 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic combine for 71 points (Video) - NBA
- Irving, Doncic power Mavericks past 76ers without injured Embiid, 118-102 - Brian Mahoney - AP
- Kyrie Irving drops 36 on old team as Mavericks handle Nets - Reuters
- Kyrie Irving drops 36 points in Brooklyn return to lead Mavericks over Nets - Bridget Reilly - New York Post
- Kyrie Irving’s Brooklyn return met with boos, cheers from Nets crowd - Bridget Reilly - New York Post
- Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic combine for 71 points as Mavericks defeat Mikal Bridges, Nets ($) - Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Kyrie Irving doesn’t get tribute video from Nets, scores 36 points amid boos in return to Brooklyn ($) - Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Ex-Nets star Kyrie Irving takes a shot at Mayor Adams in his Brooklyn return ($) - Peter Sblendorio - New York Daily News
- Nets Notebook: Ben Simmons starts, but Brooklyn undermanned against Mavericks ($) - C.J. Holmes - New York Daily News
- Kyrie Irving’s 36 points lead Mavericks’ win over Nets ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Kyrie Irving draws muted response in return to Barclays Center ($) - Laura Albanese - Newsday
- Kyrie Irving’s return to Barclays Center brings a mixed bag of his time with Nets ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Injured Nets Cam Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV both sit out vs. Mavericks ($) - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Mavs’ Kyrie Irving returns to Brooklyn: ‘I’ve made my peace’ - Tim Bontemps - ESPN
- Mavs’ Kyrie Irving steals the show with flashy dunk, relentless drive in win vs. Nets ($) - Brad Townsend - Dallas Morning News