This is what happens if the Nets aren’t the most played team in all of basketball: a 44-point loss to the No. 11 Chicago Bulls of the East, fresh off a nine-day NBA All-Star break.
The net offense was anemic in a legendary poor performance against the Bulls on Friday. Brooklyn had just 29 points in the first half – tying the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst season – and didn’t reach the 49-point mark for fewest points scored by a team in a game in NBA history until the fourth quarter.
“We have to be the most played team in the NBA,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said for the second time publicly since the trades that sent Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks and Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns. “When do we not? That can happen, for sure, when we’re not playing as hard as the team in front of us.”
Offense will always be in short supply for a team now looking for its new identity after trading two of the game’s most prolific scorers. The defense, however, with no players starting less than 6-5 and four of the five current starters known for defensive slugging, should have been way ahead of the offense.
That was not the case, at least not against the Bulls on Friday, creating a perfect storm when combined with Brooklyn’s offensive offense in the first three quarters.
The Bulls’ lead swelled to 50 early in the fourth quarter before Cam Thomas and Seth Curry – who combined to score 41 points, more than all five Nets starters combined – ignited in trash time.
“With that group starting to come into the game, I think their defensive rating was like 88 or something crazy when all five are together. This is insane,” Vaughn said after the game. “So for us to give up 30 points basically in the first quarter just doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t match.
“So I didn’t overdo it with the guys. I said I’ve seen that before in my career going into the All-Star break and coming out of the All-Star break. We ended up being blamed for coming out of the All-Star break not ready.
In many ways, it’s understandable why a Nets group assembled just days ago struggled so drastically against a Bulls team that not only had the same core for two seasons, but also boasts an offense powered by two stars in DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.
Four of the Nets’ five starters arrived in Brooklyn shortly before or immediately after the NBA’s February 9 trade deadline. Those players – Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson – spent part of their All-Star split uprooting their lives from their former homes and settling in Brooklyn.
Bridges, for example, was in Salt Lake City for a few days doing events for All-Star Weekend, then headed back to Phoenix to pack his bags and bring his Labrador Retriever back to Brooklyn. He said he doesn’t like to pack and he doesn’t know how to move.
Dinwiddie had been through this process twice before, first with the sign and trade that sent him from Brooklyn to the Washington Wizards, then the subsequent deal that sent him from DC to the Dallas Mavericks.
Dinwiddie lives in Los Angeles and spent much of his vacation moving things from Dallas to his storage unit at home. He also sold one of his cars because he’s moved back to Brooklyn and doesn’t have to drive as much.
That’s just the extrajudicial aspect. Life on the court is ten times more complicated.
Bridges and Dinwiddie need to step into Irving and Durant’s respective roles – or at least try to – if this version of the Nets is to maintain their current position as an Eastern Conference playoff team.
Dinwiddie shot 0-of-6 from the field for two points. Bridges was 4-of-10 for 13 points.
It also doesn’t help that the Nets came out of the All-Star break with the seventh toughest schedule in all of basketball. They have lost their last three away games handily (by 43 at Boston, by 18 at Madison Square Garden and by 44 on Friday night) and played eight of their next 10 away games, including the 3 p.m. Sunday against Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks before hosting the No. 2 Milwaukee Bucks at the Barclays Center on Tuesday.
The Hawks scored 81 first-half points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. The Nets didn’t score 81 points until the 3:22 mark of the fourth quarter.
“The guys had a lot going on, and they had a lot going on before the All-Star break and during the All-Star break trying to get their lives in order,” Vaughn said. “OK. There you go. Now, life is in order, now. It’s time. And that’s what we talked about in those two days of practice – it’s time. There’s no waste. Like, if you need to speed up the process, we’ve got We have to work to speed up the process. This is all of the above. This is your life, this is your responsibility. This is being part of the team. We need to streamline this.”
“We understand we are fighting an uphill battle on this, but we are still professionals and we have a job to do,” added Dinwiddie. “You cannot make excuses. You have to go there and play the game. With a high level of effort – and I don’t care if we just met yesterday – like 40 points is unacceptable. It’s that simple.”
As much as defeat rests with the players, it must also rest with Vaughn. He signed a new contract extension to keep him in Brooklyn through the 2026-27 NBA season during the All-Star break — and responded by coaching one of the worst losses any team suffered all year.
“So it’s an unfortunate lesson for us. I hope we learn the lesson extremely quickly. and say [Bulls] Coach Donovan to send me his All-Star halftime practice plan,” Vaughn said. “Your guys were agile, they had juice, you give them credit. I told them we have to take this loss, so give Billy a lot of credit for having his group ready.
Two of the team’s leading scorers and their best three-point shooter come off the bench in favor of a lineup that focuses on defensive versatility.
The Nets are no longer fielding a player who can break down a defense at will, except for the minutes Thomas plays for Vaughn. After suggesting that Thomas might see a reduced role and appointing Curry off-side as the team’s backup point guard, Vaughn threw Thomas a team-record 30 minutes. Thomas scored 22 points – Dinwiddie and Bridges added 15 – but scored just three points on free throws in the first half, including Brooklyn’s 29th point of the night, before coming to life in the third and fourth quarters.
If Vaughn is going to lean heavily on a defensive lineup in the first place, he’ll need to be more creative in finding ways to generate a quality offense.
Some shots were open stares that didn’t fall. Others were the by-product of a rash attack that carelessly turned the ball over and failed to generate any fluidity.
If this is how the Nets are going to be, the playoffs are a dream. With 23 games left in the regular season, the Nets are hanging on to the fifth seed. They are one game ahead of the Knicks, two and a half games ahead of the Miami Heat, and if they drop to seventh, the Nets will have to survive a sudden-death Play-In Tournament against teams with more offensive weapons than them.
“The multiple efforts that everyone talks about [usually] come on the defensive side of the court, but for us it’s going to come on the offensive side of the court,” Vaughn said. “So I might be bait, I might have to find a player to create some kind of momentum for our group, and I might not get the rock. We have to be okay with that. So it’s the multiple efforts on the offensive side of the court that we’ll have to work on.”
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