Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach, once said a moral victory was like kissing his sister, but there were still plenty of positives for Jacque Vaughn’s team on Thursday in their 118-113 loss at FiServ Forum.
While the Bucks, without Giannis Antetokounmpo, won their 19th in 20 games. the Nets fought back once again, led by their bench, which scored 98 points, the most any The NBA bench has scored since the league began tracking stats in 1971.
Brooklyn dropped 22 early with a skeleton team missing five rotational players, then Vaughn went deep into his roster and things started to work. With the team’s two doubles, Dru Smith and David Duke Jr., much of their second half, Brooklyn slowly came back from a 17-point halftime deficit, eventually cutting the lead to two points on a Cam Thomas runner. with 32 seconds left, then three on a Patty Mills shot from deep with 13.7 remaining.
Mills was the Nets’ leading scorer with 23 points followed by Thomas with 21. While Mills’ points were split in the second half, Thomas scored ten in a row for the Nets in the fourth.
The big play came with 4:31 to go when it appeared the Nets could tie the game on a foul call on Brook Lopez and the Nets down two, 99-97. As Day’Ron Sharpe prepared to go on the line, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer challenged the foul on Lopez and the call was overturned. The Bucks got the ball and Bobby Portis hit a two-run on Nets possession to start an 8-2 run. After the match, Vaughn called the call “interesting.”
The Nets, facing a back-to-back, rested four players – Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton, Cam Johnson and Royce O’Neale – and were also without Ben Simmons. Vaughn also made it clear before the game that he intended to limit Mikal Bridges’ minutes. The result was predictable as the Nets fell early to the Bucks, trailing 22 with 9:21 left in the second, at one point in the first 15 consecutive shots missing, the franchise’s most futile stretch since which they missed 16 in a row in March. 2012 while still in New Jersey. They cut it to 17 at halftime, and then true to his word, Vaughn went deep into his bench, leaving his best guys on the bench.
The quartet of Mills, Thomas, Smith and Duke Jr. made it a game in the third, slowly cutting the lead as the Nets outscored the Bucks, 33-23, entering the fourth, down, 87-80 . Smith, a 6’3” point guard who played five games earlier this season with the Heat, finished with 17 points, 12 more than his previous career high, shooting 7 of 13 overall and adding four assists without return the ball. once. Duke Jr., the 6’5” winger who is now in his second year as a Nets forward, also hit a career high, scoring 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He also claimed a possible dunk of the year with this roll down the lane in fourth…
The defense also improved in the second half. After hitting 14 threes through the first two quarters, the Bucks hit just five the rest of the game.
After the game, Vaughn credited Long Island Nets coach Ronnie Burrell for helping develop Smith and Duke Jr.
“You know, we really really talked about Ronnie Burrell the other day,” Vaughn said of the G League Coach of the Month. “I think it kind of starts with him having Dru Smith and David Duke with him preaching the same message that we’re here, working on the same concepts.”
Vaughn was so confident in his bench that he didn’t play Bridges or Joe Harris at all in the second half, opting to go with the players who pushed the Bucks in the third.
“Yeah, that’s just the way the schedule turned out,” Vaughn said of his decisions to rely on the bench. “We had some guys who were in trouble, I guess you want to call them injuries a bit. So, a chance for us to listen to those nagging injuries and be smart about what this part of the season looks like.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to see a few guys who were in the rotation at one point and dropped out of the rotation just because of numbers. So we have a chance to watch a few guys, we’ll see what some rotations look like. We will always stay curious and see how versatile we can be to try and win.
For the Bucks, Lopez was the sworn enemy. Now 34 and in his third iteration as a player, going from traditional center back to basket to 3-point shooter to rim protector, the former Net came with a block a triple-double, scoring 24 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking a Bucks franchise-record nine hits.
Lopez delivered what turned out to be the dagger with a huge tip with 30.6 seconds left, aided by two free throws from Grayson Allen with 11 seconds left. Bobby Portis, working under in Claxton’s absence, was the game’s top scorer with 28 points to go with 10 boards. Antetokounmpo had been discharged with a non-COVID illness as well as a sore hand.
“It was a close game, and he made the difference-making plays down the stretch,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Lopez.
While the Knicks also lost to Sacramento on Thursday night, the Nets remain the sixth seed, one game behind New York. The Nets still hold a two-and-a-half-game lead over the seventh-seeded Heat and four games over the eighth-seeded Hawks. Brooklyn won the season series with Miami, so the Nets actually have an even bigger cushion in the standings.
Meanwhile, with Kevin Durant out for at least two weeks after spraining his ankle in warmups on Wednesday, the Nets will be watching what the Suns do going forward. Brooklyn controls the Suns’ first round unprotected (as well as their own first) in the June draft. As of Friday, the Nets have the 21st (their own) and 22nd (the Suns) picks in the draft, which is considered a strong and deep draft.
- In addition to the Nets scoring the most bench points in the 52 years the NBA has kept records on starters against bench scores, they also claimed a negative record. Brooklyn’s five starters have scored just 15 combined points — 11 by Mikal Bridge — the fewest by a starting lineup since the Pistons combined for 13 on April 16, 2008.
- Yuta Watanabe caught 10 boards, tying his career high.
- Cam Thomas scored 20 points for the 10th time this season, including three 40-plus games and one 30+.
The Nets travel to Minnesota where they will face the Timberwolves Friday night at 8:00 p.m. ET.
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