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Finally, Some Pride In Nets Basketball
When the Nets fell behind by the embarrassing score of 51-23 midway through the second quarter on Friday night at Boston, they seemed to be well on their way to their fifth consecutive loss. Worse, it would have been the third defeat in that span where they were blown off the court early.
Like many Nets fans, I was stunned at what ensued and still am not sure what exactly happened for Brooklyn to end its 10-game losing streak to the Celtics (including playoffs) with a 115-105 victory.
The Celtics clearly took their foot off the gas, the Nets started making some shots (they converted on a more respectable 11-of-28 three-pointers after a ghastly 3-for-16 start), Boston center Robert Williams exited with an injury midway through the third quarter, giving Brooklyn a weaker option to attack with significantly fewer concerns about their opponent’s previously vaunted rim protection, etc.
What I noticed most, though, was that the Nets finally started playing with some pride.
For most of the first half, Brooklyn let Boston bully them at will with almost no resistance. It wasn’t so much in the rebounding department, as the Celtics recorded just two second chance points all night, but their ballhandlers were getting to their spots with ease, very often straight to the cup. Every screen seemed to knock the Nets for a loop, as if they were helpless in matching such physicality. Even Mikal Bridges, hyped to be this stellar one-on-one defender as a featured return in the trade of superstar Kevin Durant to Phoenix three weeks ago, was getting abused by Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown—a game after Knicks guard Jalen Brunson torched him for 39 points as if Bridges didn’t want to make his former Villanova teammate look bad.
The dreadful effort wasn’t an outlier either. The 37 points the Celtics dropped in the first quarter marked the 13th time in 17 quarters where the Nets surrendered at least 30 points.
Again, I didn’t notice any particular “turning point”—not a sequence on the court or a timeout from Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn. Thereafter, the team was successful whether they went big or small. The comeback started with a three-plus-minute stretch where the Nets played without a point guard—the offense ran through Bridges or Royce O’Neale—and that five-man unit outscored Boston, 11-6.
Maybe the team just had enough. The four new acquisitions from the Durant and Kyrie Irving trades—Bridges (36 points on 59% shooting, including 4-of-6 from deep), Cam Johnson (20 points on his birthday), Spencer Dinwiddie (17 points and 8 assists), and Dorian Finney-Smith (17 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks, including a hellacious one near the end of the first half) stepped up their activity as individuals and collectively.
Finney-Smith, who, based on his subpar initial performances, had Nets fans wondering why General Manager Sean Marks didn’t flip him at the trade deadline for the alleged compensation of two first-round picks when he had the chance, was instrumental on both ends, providing floor spacing by knocking down 5-of-his-last-9 three-pointers. The “3-and-D wing” played about 19 minutes as a small-ball 5, and the Nets weren’t smoked as they often had been when Nic Claxton went to the bench.
By the fourth quarter, it was the Nets who went up by double digits. And when the NBA universe expected them to fold down the stretch, especially when Dinwiddie wasted multiple offensive possessions thinking he could take the air out of the ball, they made enough plays to never let their lead dwindle below eight points. Finney-Smith quelled one Boston rally by knocking down a long straight-on 3 near the end of the shot clock with 2:23 remaining, the Brooklyn defense got a couple of stops (shout out to Johnson for avoiding a sixth foul as Brown travelled en route to a sure layup), and a hustle offensive rebound by O’Neale drained the clock further with less than a minute remaining.to ensure there would be a happy ending.
I’m among the Nets fans who expect very little from this reconfigured roster. Despite their head start (they still own the NBA’s ninth-best record at 35-28), Brooklyn seems to me to be destined for the play-in round based on their lack of a consistent crunch-time bucket-getter.
However, no one had this group getting blown out this often as if they were a college cupcake facing ACC schools. Never mind the excuse of having limited time to integrate new pieces--this is still a professional basketball team. Yet in their first seven games since the new foursome took the court for the first time, they went 1-6, with four of the losses by double digits (and the heartbreaker in Atlanta last Sunday required a comeback from 18 points down).
The start in Boston had all the trimmings of the trend continuing, with excessive one-or-no-pass offensive possessions, little defensive resistance, and a disgraceful resulting deficit. Thankfully for Nets fans, the team’s pride kicked in at the most opportune moment.