The Brooklyn Nets are in desperate need of a closer, as highlighted by Brian Lewis on Sunday. It’s not just because they lost two games due to clutch shots from Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic in the final minutes. This has been an ongoing issue.
According to Lewis:
After the All-Star break last season, the Brooklyn Nets had a poor minus-24.3 clutch Net Rating. Only the lottery-bound Pistons and Trail Blazers had worse ratings. The league defines “clutch” as a game within five points in the last five minutes of regulation or overtime.
Even their top player since the deadline trades, Mikal Bridges, struggled.
After joining Brooklyn, Bridges faced increased defensive focus in those clutch situations and shot a disappointing 22.2 percent (2-for-9) in 36 minutes. Only six players in the league with similar minutes performed worse.
This year, Bridges has gone 0-for-10 in clutch situations during the two close games. He’s currently in a funk and acknowledged this, appearing visibly distraught during the post-game presser on Friday.
Bridges stated, “[The Mavericks] simply made stops. Personally, I’m not executing properly. I’m not helping my team.”
To be clear, Bridges isn’t playing poorly overall; he’s simply struggling in clutch moments. He has averaged 19.0 points in the two games with shooting splits of 41/33/92, and his defense has been solid.
Both Jacque Vaughn and Spencer Dinwiddie downplayed the concern, despite Bridges feeling down about it.
Vaughn said, “What sets teams apart is having players who can make tough shots, like Donovan did against us the first night and Luka did tonight. That’s the difference in the league, in my opinion. We’ll learn to make plays like that.”
Dinwiddie added, “Being a No. 1 option is a different burden, but it’s an honor to carry that. With Mikal’s work ethic, he’ll be fine. It’s about learning nuances and continuing to improve.
“Adjusting to a new role means carrying the responsibility of being the focal point, drawing double teams, and dealing with increased attention. Not many players in NBA history have commanded that level of attention, so it’s an adjustment.”
Bridges is not letting things spiral out of control, however.
He said, “It’s early; it’s only two games. We can’t overreact. But we need to improve. We know there will be tight games, and we need to learn how to execute and win on both ends.”
Cam Thomas has performed well in clutch situations, trying to make up for Bridges and others. Evan Barnes of Newsday noted, “Thomas gained more trust with his play down the stretch. Twelve of his 30 points came in the fourth quarter, and his final basket tied the game at 120 with 50.7 seconds left.”
Will Thomas’ heroics earn him a permanent starting spot? He started on Friday night in the absence of Cam Johnson.
Vaughn said, “He’s been rewarded for being locked-in and engaged, and for being a great teammate on both ends of the court. I’ve always had immense confidence in Cam [Thomas], and that’s continuing to grow.
“He can score the basketball and has the ability to get to the rim. He can engage the defense and make plays. He has grown as an individual, and I’m glad to be coaching him. We will continue to develop together.”
Whether Thomas starts or comes off the bench as the sixth man, as he did on Opening Night, it will be difficult to keep him off the court. As Lewis points out, Thomas is currently fifth in scoring in the NBA, only behind superstars Doncic, Damian Lillard, Mitchell, and Steph Curry. Moreover, Thomas is the only player in the top 20 who is not logging at least 30 minutes per game—he’s averaging 29 minutes. Additionally, he boasts a shooting percentage of 62.5, the highest among the top 10 scorers.
Will Thomas secure the starting spot he so clearly desires? In the summer, he told a podcaster that he could “easily” average 25 points per game.
Dinwiddie, who may be relegated to the bench if Thomas starts, praised the young guard’s performance.
Dinwiddie said, “Yeah, he’s a young guy who’s learning quickly and on the go. He’s incredibly talented. As I’ve said before, he’s the best at making tough shots on this roster. It’s great to see him continue to shine. He definitely has proven himself, and we’ll keep going to him when he’s making shots.”
It’s difficult to predict how things will unfold, but whether Thomas starts or comes off the bench, he could be exactly what the Nets need in clutch moments.
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