Friday's Nets-Celtics matchup at TD Garden looked like a continuation of Brooklyn's post-Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving nightmare early in the second quarter. The Nets trailed Boston by 28 points and appeared more disinterested with each point the seemingly insurmountable deficit grew. Then something changed.
The high-level defense the Nets pictured when they brought in Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith suddenly appeared. Their fast-paced, run-and-gun, three-point offense did the same. Brooklyn closed the second quarter on a 31-13 run. They went on to outscore Boston 40-27 in the third. All in all, the Nets closed the game on a 92-54 run to claim a 115-105 win.
The 28-point comeback is the largest in the NBA this season and tied for the largest in Nets franchise history. After losing to the crosstown rival Knicks by 24 Wednesday, Cam Johnson said Brooklyn's frustrations reached a boiling point early against Boston:
“There was a point early in that second quarter where we looked at each other and just said, ‘We're not going out this way.' It kind of brought us together,” Johnson said postgame. The only way to get through things is to do it together. That resilience we showed today was big. You have to give a lot of credit to Mikal Bridges. He came out there and made big bucket after big bucket, tough bucket after tough bucket.”
Bridges led the way in the historic comeback, continuing an impressive stretch since stepping into Brooklyn's lead-scoring role. The forward poured in a game-high 38 points on 13-0f-22 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 from three. In eight games with the Nets, Bridges is averaging 23.1 points on 50.8 percent shooting from the field and 45.0 percent from three.
Friday marks the third time the 26-year-old has scored 30-plus points with the Nets. That includes a career-best 45-points in a Feb 15 win over Miami. The 26-year-old scored 30-plus just twice in his four-and-a-half years with Phoenix. And Bridges said postgame that he felt the trade to Brooklyn came at a great time:
“I think when I got traded, it was kind of at the right time,” he said. “Because when everyone was out in Phoenix, I had to take up another role offensively and be more aggressive. By the time I got traded, I was just in this great rhythm and I was confident. It was just great timing… I feel like if I get to some of my spots just personally I feel like I can make (shots).
I'm just trying to be aggressive. The whole thing I want is just to go out there and win. I feel like if I get to some my spots just personally I know I can make (shots).”
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn leaned into Bridges' self-creation more heavily Friday amid his impressive scoring stretch, deploying him as a lead ball handler during his team's dramatic turnaround.
“I’m figuring out more and more about him. Tonight we had him out there as a primary ball-handler. We had Seth and Spencer on the bench and Mikal was handling,” Vaughn said. “We’ll continue to try to get wins as I figure out what we can get from all of our new guys. He’s done a good job of embracing whatever role, helping our team win, and just competing at a high level.”
Johnson added 20 points in the win with Spencer Dinwiddie chipping in 17 more, but it was Brooklyn's fourth deadline acquisition that provided a decisive lift during the comeback. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting from three to go along with nine rebounds and two blocks.
The former Mavericks forward had struggled in a big way since arriving in Brooklyn, shooting 7-of-34 (20.6 percent) from deep, a far cry from his career mark of 36.1 percent over his first six seasons. Finney-Smith has frequently been used as a small-ball five behind Nic Claxton with Ben Simmons sidelined, a role where he made a tremendous two-way impact Friday.
🛑 Dorian Finney-Smith with the REJECTION 🛑 pic.twitter.com/pClftK1fdx
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) March 4, 2023
The 29-year-old admitted postgame that he had been pressing from three in recent games but said he was able to shift his mindset during the comeback.
“I just took my focus off my shot-making and just worried about winning,” Finney-Smith said. “And when you do that it kind of takes the pressure off of making shots and I appreciate my teammates. They kept passing me the ball and kept telling me to shoot it even though I ain't been making shots.”
Among those teammates who have been vocal in their encouragement of Finney-Smith is Bridges:
“Man, he was over getting in his head, getting upset about not making shots. I just told him it’s gonna come,” Bridges said postgame. “I played against him in Dallas. And in the playoffs, he's hitting eight threes in a game… I was like, ‘Just keep shooting. You're gonna find it.’ He just stayed confident and trusted his work.
In the big moments, he was making shots and that's what we're gonna need. And that's just making shots; that's not even talking about what he does defensively and everything else. He’s a dog, man. I've always told him when he was in Dallas that he's a big glue guy to that team and they need you. So I've been telling him that from the jump.”
BIG SHOT DO3 pic.twitter.com/FlpPTNd1Yi
The win snaps a four-game Nets losing streak since the All-Star break, halting a freefall in the standings for the time being. Brooklyn sits two and a half games up on Miami for sixth place in the Easter Conference with 19 remaining. And Vaughn said he hopes the victory over one of the league's best reinforces the new-look Nets' belief in what they can be:
“We’ve shown glimpses of what we can be as a team. And tonight, to put it together and get a win and get rewarded for it is pretty impressive,” Vaughn said.”I do think guys need momentum, confidence, belief, proof, evidence, all of the above. This gave us some evidence tonight that when we’re locked in, we can be pretty good. When we cover for each other, we can be pretty good. So for this group to see it, to feel it, to be on the road against a quality opponent, it means even more.”