When the Nets last played the Denver Nuggets on March 12, the game plan was clear:
Force MVP leader Nikola Jokic to take more offensive responsibility and take away his help.
Jokic finished with 35 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists on the night, but the Nuggets lost a 22-point lead. The Nets allowed only three other Denver players to score in double digits, outscored the Nuggets by 19 in the third quarter and clinched a 122-120 victory, an unlikely outcome on the road against a team expected to emerge as Western Conference champion this season.
But will it work again now that the cat is out of the bag?
( As the season draws to a close, the Nets are still waiting for Ben Simmons (knee/back) to return from injury )
Opponents can’t afford to take their foot off the gas against this resilient Nets team.
Just like the Nets can’t afford to believe that the same game plan that allowed the Nuggets to build a 22-point lead in the first place will win this time against a motivated Denver team, albeit in the second game of a road. back. back after their six-point loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
“We always talk about you have to have a formula or strategy to get into the game,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said after practice at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City on Saturday. “Yesterday I told the guys: some guys come to the plate and you don’t pitch to them, so we have to have a strategy of who we’re going to pitch to, and that game, we said we were going to let Jokic do what he was doing and let’s see if we can compromise with the other guy, then we’ll see if that formula is the same for us.
“(Denver is a) smart team. They will make some adjustments. What I did like is that we played with a lot of energy, we were fighting, very rudimentary, all of the above, we played small. So those things we’ll probably see again.”
Jokic, however, is cut from the same Nets kryptonite cloth as Domantas Sabonis, the All-Star forward who had 24 points and 21 rebounds in Brooklyn’s home loss to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday. The Nets have traditionally fought against dominant big men who use sheer force and brute force to blast their way to the rim for rebounds and baskets.
It’s an area the team has tried to address twice with backup center Day’Ron Sharpe out of the rotation. The Nets weren’t sold on Nerlens Noel after his 10-day contract expired and traded to 7-foot-2 center Moses Brown, who had just completed a 10-day contract with the Knicks and practiced with the Nets on Saturday.
( Nets approach season-defining game streak )
Brown, for reference, towers over Sharpe, who is listed at 6-foot-11. Vaughn didn’t commit to using Brown as quickly as he used Noel, who played immediately after signing his 10-day contract.
“I’m going to see how the games are presented. We want to see him get some quality minutes at some point. I did it very soon with Nerlens to get answers quickly. But he’ll surely find a way to get some minutes,” Vaughn said of Brown. “It’s just great. He’s just a big body in the rim for us, but a nimble guy. As if he could run the floor. Young, 23, has the ability to go up and down. But at the end of the day, he’s a big guy.”
Of course, it’s unfair to expect Brown, who went undrafted in 2019 and has played minutes for five different NBA teams, to make a big impact controlling Jokic, who won MVP in each of the last two. years.
It’s also unfair to expect the Nets to be as successful against the Nuggets as they were in their last outing.
Denver is home to the best record in the Western Conference. They have the second-highest offensive rating in all of basketball behind only the same Kings team that won at Barclays Center on Thursday, rank second in assist percentage, first in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in rebound percentage. They shoot the second-best 3-point percentage in all of basketball, and of course they’re led by presumptive MVP in Jokic, who is on pace to join Wilt Chamberlain as the only player to win three MVPs in a row.
And they led by 22 before admitting they took their foot off the gas and let the Nets come back to win in Denver.
More importantly, Sunday morning’s game is the second game in a six-game stretch that could define Brooklyn’s season.
The Knicks’ win over the Nuggets on Saturday put them two games ahead of the Nets for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The seventh-seeded Miami Heat entered the weekend 1.5 games behind the Nets before taking on another playoff contender, the Chicago Bulls, on Saturday.
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The Nets are sandwiched between the two, holding on to the solace that comes with the sixth seed by a thread. If they drop to seventh, they will have to compete in the Play-In Tournament, which means a sudden death matchup between the playoff hopefuls where the winners advance to the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoffs and the losers go home.
The Nets lost the first game in their stretch to the No. 2 Kings on Thursday. It’s Jokic’s Nuggets on Sunday, two straight games against Donovan Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers after that, then a back-to-back road first in Miami against the Heat, then in Orlando against the long, athletic Magic the next night.
“We all know math and we see the seeding,” Spencer Dinwiddie said after practice Saturday. “Everyone knows that.”
However, Vaughn joked that the first thing he told himself when he woke up Saturday morning was that he wouldn’t look past Sunday’s matchup against the Nuggets. He doesn’t want his team to look too far ahead because there are too many variables that could be at play between now and the season finale against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9.
“I really want them to focus on our next game, which is Denver, and for that to be all that consumes them. Because enough is enough,” he said. “That team is good enough to have enough problems to deal with, so we don’t want to exacerbate it by putting more pressure, nothing else besides the game.”
This, of course, is the time in the season where every game comes with added pressure. In Brooklyn, every loss will send the Nets closer and closer to Sudden Death Play-In Tournament territory.
( Nets need apparent backup center in home loss to Sacramento Kings: ‘It’s got to be a five-man effort’ )
That’s the last place a team without superstars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wants to be, especially for a team like the Nets, who are still working out the kinks in their late-game offense.