Nets’ Thrilling OT Victory Showed Team’s Brain, Not Just Heart
Many will credit the Nets’ heart for Friday night’s thrilling 124-123 overtime victory in Minnesota. They fought back from an early double-digit deficit (a disturbingly recurring trend), battled through one-sided officiating in the fourth quarter, and managed to keep their composure following the crushing gut punch that was backup Minnesota center Naz Reid’s buzzer-beating three-pointer that sent the contest into a fifth period.
However, it wasn’t just Brooklyn’s heart that saved the game. After doing so much wrong from the point where they allowed the Timberwolves to roar back from an eight-point hole in crunch time (though the rally started with an egregious overturn of a foul call that would have sent Nets wing Royce O’Neale to the free throw line with a chance to push the lead to ten points—in no way was clear evidence present that showed Wolves forward Jaden McDaniels catching all ball in his block attempt instead of wrist, in addition to his off arm being wrapped around O’Neale)), through the first three minutes of overtime, the Nets needed to activate their minds to secure the victory.
For Brooklyn’s brains clicked in just in the nick of time. From my recollection, I saw the Nets execute one frontcourt pass in their first four offensive possessions in overtime, with their sole strategy of having point guard Spencer Dinwiddie hunt for mismatches for isolations. Though it worked twice, the Wolves caught on and took a 121-118 lead with 1:41 remaining courtesy of a bucket from their star wing Anthony Edwards.
The smarter ploy was to have Dinwiddie attack the paint with the intention of baiting Minnesota giant Rudy Gobert inside to help—and then pass the ball to open spot-up shooters, not fling difficult attempts toward the basket himself. Consecutive three-balls from Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith put Brooklyn ahead and Cam Johnson just missed what would have been a dagger from the left corner with 10.4 seconds remaining.
Down by one point on its final possession, Minnesota had several options to choose from, unlike at the end of regulation when they had only 1.4 seconds to work with to get three points and needed a miscommunication error between O’Neale and Finney-Smith to free Reid. This time, the Nets first wisely used their foul to give with 5.6 seconds remaining. Then, having seen the play, Finney-Smith iced Edwards to the sideline to set up a double team with Dinwiddie to get the ball out of Edwards’ hands. All Minnesota could muster was a desperation heave from point guard Mike Conley from the left corner that didn’t even make it to the rim.
The Nets originally turned the game around with a 37-20 outburst in the third quarter, taking advantage of 13 trips to the line (I knew then that the Nets were going to get royally screwed later) and Head Coach Jacque Vaughn’s mixing up a defense that couldn’t stop anything Minnesota was doing in the first half. The man/zone combinations frustrated Edwards into an 0-for-5 quarter. Oddly, Brooklyn had some success utilizing smaller players like O’Neale and Dinwiddie on Gobert by design, even when center Nic Claxton was on the scene.
Vaughn had no choice but to go small in crunch time after Claxton picked up his sixth foul on a moving screen that the ref looked like he couldn’t wait to call. The Nets did their best to swarm into their rotations and gang rebound (extra kudos to O’Neale for matching a career high with 15 boards) while taking advantage of the extra floor spacing provided by non-shooter Claxton’s absence.
It was a huge win for a team hoping to stay out of the play-in round—the Nets (38-29) pulled within a half-game of fifth place New York while maintaining a 2.5 game edge on seventh place Miami. As I mentioned in my last post, this was only the beginning of a treacherous 10-game stretch, with Western Conference leading Denver on tap next on Sunday.
Notwithstanding the tear Bridges has been on (25.8 points per game on 51.4/49.2/90 shooting split) in his 12 games since joining Brooklyn, for a team that lost such immense talent by trading superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving last month, just playing with heart won’t be enough. They’ll also need to play smart.