Finney-Smith Contributing To Short-Handed Nets In Ways Obvious And Subtle
When center Nic Claxton injured his ankle in the Nets’ opening night loss to Cleveland last week, it threatened to leave a gaping hole in Brooklyn’s middle.
Not so fast, said Dorian Finney-Smith, who has stepped up in ways both obvious to stat sheet readers and subtle for those who appreciate the game’s nuances.
In the subsequent two games, both on the road, where Finney-Smith was promoted to the starting five, the Nets have played inspired basketball. After Dallas needed all of Luka Doncic’s wizardry to pull out a 125-120 victory on Friday, Charlotte was overwhelmed by the new-look Nets, 133-121, on Monday night for Brooklyn’s first win of the season. Finney-Smith scored 12 and 19 points, respectively, on an aggregate 55% shooting from the floor, including 50% from behind the three-point line.
But that was only half the story. You see, Finney-Smith is listed at 6-foot 7 and 220 pounds and has been a wing/forward defender for perhaps the entirety of his 7-year pro career. He isn’t known for fearsome rim protection or voracious rebounding, at least while he was in Dallas before coming to Brooklyn in the Kyrie Irving trade in February.
However, there’s a reason why Finney-Smith, 30, was clearly beloved by his Mavericks teammates, as evidenced by their reactions in his return engagement on Friday. They appreciated his winning character, working his way up as an undrafted free agent out of Florida with his willingness to take on and beat every challenge. His three-point efficiency improved every season until 2022-23, when a fracture in his right pinky finger hindered his stroke to the point where many Nets fans wondered what all the fuss over him was about.
We all understand now. Yes, he’s knocking down shots, but he’s also doing so much more. The Nets, already thin at center, needed him to make the sacrifice to play out of his comfort zone. And, at least for these last few nights, Finney-Smith has been holding up his end.
For what seems like forever, the Nets have been an atrocious defensive rebounding team. Lo and behold, Brooklyn ranks third in the category, grabbing 78.1% of defensive rebound opportunities this season, per NBA.com. It may be a small sample size and the Nets have yet to face a real board-banging opponent, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, especially when you consider the size disadvantage Brooklyn has been facing.
That’s because Finney-Smith is giving a nightly clinic on how to box out underneath. He may not secure every board (he averages 6.3 rebounds per game), but he’s in the mix for most, battling with multiple jumps even if it’s just to tip loose balls to a teammate. He embodies the “hit first” mentality that Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn always preaches but hasn’t been able to enforce.
Defensively, the Nets will obviously be susceptible to bleeding points in the paint when playing this small, but Finney-Smith’s hands and IQ have been noticeable. Vaughn has Brooklyn mixing up their pick-and-roll coverages this season, and Finney-Smith is adept at both switching onto ballhandlers and also maintaining a paint presence in drop coverage.
In his postgame remarks to the assembled media following Brooklyn’s wire-to-wire win, Vaughn made sure to praise Finney-Smith for how he communicated as the team’s defensive anchor. Vaughn also acknowledged how incredibly difficult that can be for a player who is used to guarding more on the perimeter. It’s why Finney-Smith’s non-scoring contributions are so valuable that even if his three-point shooting regresses to slightly above the league average rate of 35%, he’d still be a plus player.
Early this season, he’s been feasting on all the open looks he’s getting. Per NBA.com, all 15 of his field goals have been assisted. As expected, Ben Simmons has set up five buckets, but I was shocked to see that Lonnie Walker IV was next in line with four assists on DFS field goals. Finney-Smith is still more proficient from the corners (6-for-10), but his 36.4% rate on above-the-break 3s is certainly serviceable.
For years, I have howled at the moon about the Nets’ refusal to place a stretch five on their roster, but as much fun as this run has been with Finney-Smith opening up the paint for the club’s playmakers, it remains to be seen how sustainable such a small-ball configuration will be when the schedule toughens, starting with Wednesday’s date in Miami. Next week’s slate shows home-and-home meetings with towering Boston and home matchups with the contending Bucks and Clippers.
By then Claxton might be off the shelf, though the team said on Monday that starting forward Cam Johnson’s calf sprain won’t even be reevaluated for about ten days. My guess is that Finney-Smith will return to a bench role whenever Claxton is cleared for game action--unless the ankle injury to guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who exited Monday’s contest in the second quarter, is serious. In the long run, playing the backup five will probably suit Finney-Smith better, since he won’t have to deal so much with the Joel Embiid’s, Nikola Jokic’s, and the bevy of beefy bigs on the NBA menu.
It’s easy to appreciate the brilliance of big-time bucket-getters like Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas, who became the second-youngest player in NBA history after Shaquille O’Neal to open a season with three consecutive 30-point outings with his 33-point performance against the Hornets. Nets fans shouldn’t underrate Finney-Smith’s impact in these last two games either.
Photo by: BrooklynNets.com