The Brooklyn Nets fell 114-113 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their season opener Wednesday at Barclays Center. After taking the lead late, the Nets' new-look roster couldn't close the deal against the Donovan Mithcell-led Cavs.
Here are three key takeaways from a nail-biter in Brooklyn:
Ben Simmons reverts to old habits
Ben Simmons' improved aggressiveness with the ball in his hands was the story of the preseason for Brooklyn. However, the three-time All-Star looked closer to the watered-down version of himself from last season during Wednesday's loss.
Simmons scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting and failed to get to the free-throw line. While he recorded nine assists and 10 rebounds, his offensive passivity was noticeable as Brooklyn's offense stalled at several points throughout the game. Like last year, several of Simmons' shots were fading away from the rim and came up short, including an airball on the game's first possession. He also passed up an open dunk under the basket early in the game, a play he's made at several points over his last two seasons.
The Nets were adamant throughout training camp that Simmons would be a focal point of their offense as the team's primary ball-handler. However, he played just eight minutes in the second half Wednesday, and his hesitance with the ball in his hands was the main reason why. That's a tough pill to swallow for a Brooklyn team relying on the former number-one pick to take a major step forward this season.
Cam Thomas puts on a show but sits late
After spending most of his first two seasons on the bench, Cam Thomas' role was one of the Nets' top storylines entering 2023-24. The fourth-year Net ended any questions of whether he should be in the rotation Wednesday. Thomas scored 36 points on 13-of-21 shooting, the most for a player off the bench in a season opener in NBA history. He scored 24 in the first half, carrying an otherwise struggling Nets offense and keeping the team in the game.
Despite his hot start, Thomas played just 11 minutes in the second half. After playing the final seven minutes of the third quarter, he checked out with 10:25 left in the fourth and did not re-enter until the 3:28 mark. When asked if he considered putting the red-hot Thomas back in earlier, head coach Jacque Vaughn said he felt the 22-year-old was tired.
“If you watched that thing, he was tired after that stretch we had put him in before,” Vaughn said. “The way he shook my hand coming out of the game after that stretch that we had given him, I thought the minutes overall were where they needed to be tonight.”
Thomas played 25 minutes for the night. Given his unconscious shooting through three-quarters, it's fair to question Vaughn's decision to hold him out for the majority of the fourth.
Nets offense sputters late
One Nets question stood out above all others entering the 2023-24 season: Do they have a closer in clutch moments?
The answer was a resounding “No” on Wednesday, and Cleveland's Donovan Mitchell showed Brooklyn what they were missing.
Following a stretch of active defense leading to easy transition looks, Brooklyn took a six-point lead with 1:24 remaining. Mitchell proceeded to drain a tough stepback jumper to cut the lead to four. The Nets stalled on the other end, with a Cam Johnson pull-up jumper getting blocked late in the shot clock. Max Strus then drew a foul in transition and hit two free throws to cut the lead to two.
With Simmons and Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn's top two ball-handlers, out of the game, Royce O'Neale initiated the next possession. He and Mikal Bridges miscommunicated on a handoff, allowing Mitchell to strip the ball and go in for a dunk. Mitchell bailed the Nets out with a foul on the other end, sending Bridges to the line with Brooklyn in the bonus. Bridges hit both to give the Nets a one-point lead, only for Mitchell to drive into Johnson on the other end, stepback, and drain a three to regain the advantage.
With one final possession to win the game, the Nets attempted to get the ball to Bridges. However, Cleveland's physical defense would not allow him to get open, leading to a Thomas prayer late in the clock that fell short to seal a heartbreaking loss.
Following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Vaughn has been clear that the Nets won't play the isolation-heavy style of years past, instead embracing a score-by-committee approach. However, all NBA teams need a player who can consistently get a bucket late in games when the pace of play slows and defenses ramp up their intensity. It's unclear who that player is for the Nets, and until they find out, expect more disappointing late-game results.