In some forgotten reality, the Brooklyn Nets were blessed with the opportunity to play the Philadelphia 76ers just days after the Jimmy Butler trade was processed. With no Butler, nor the outgoing Robert Covington or Dario Saric, the Nets forced the 76ers into 28 turnovers and cruised to a would-be season-defining victory. Back when the ball was beautiful, that win kicked off a mini-surge, confidences bloomed and the tough Nets looked like they were here to stay.
Obviously, everything has changed since the last time these two teams faced off. And yet, Brooklyn continues to grind. In the absence of Caris LeVert, both Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell have stepped up in his stead. While the Nets bring frustrating inconsistencies at times — read: almost always — they’ve been bringing their very best against this division rival.
And although superstar (and famed Nets-nightmare) Jimmy Butler was there to seal the deal for his new franchise, it was another overall strong effort from many of the Nets’ young assets.
After a quiet game Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Russell came out hot. When he cooks with the tenacity of a hot grease fire, the Nets can hang with anybody. Russell’s 11 points, three rebounds and four assists got the Nets to the bench with a lead — these days, that means a whole lot. Then handing those reigns over to Dinwiddie, Brooklyn barely missed a beat. The LeVert subplot to the season has seized control of the narrative, but head coach Kenny Atkinson has been lucky to attack opposing defenses with either Russell or Dinwiddie (and sometimes both!) whenever he pleases.
Thanks to the two court generals, the Nets took a 32-25 edge into the second frame.
Russell’s re-introduction saw the Nets stay scorching-earth hot too, as YES Network’s Ryan Ruocco described the enigmatic point as having some serious “giddyup” early on. The Nets’ lead swelled to 14 points after a wide-open Jared Dudley — off the bench for the first time all season — nailed a transition three. But for all we’ve learned about the Nets, it was impossible to totally erase that mingling back-of-the-mind feeling. You know, the one that screams: This is good and good things don’t happen to the Nets — when will it all fall apart?
And yet, the moment didn’t come. At least not right until the very last moment.
Russell scored nine straight points to start the third quarter — yes, that third quarter — and the Nets kept their double-digit lead healthy and strong. To this point, only Russell and Dinwiddie had been mentioned repeatedly here, but it’d be remiss not to praise the majority of the Nets’ supporting cast as well. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was posting up with irrational curiosity — even hitting a three-pointer to boot — and DeMarre Carroll grit and ground his way to another classically veteran performance.
Jarrett Allen, who can get lost in the shuffle against big centers like Joel Embiid, held his own too, mostly. The Nets usually jack up three-pointers like they’re about to go out of stock — but tonight, they only took high-quality attempts. With just loose change left in that third quarter, the Nets were hitting buckets at a 58.6 percent clip, only enhanced by a well-controlled 13-turnover effort.
Headed into the final 12-minute stretch, Russell and Dinwiddie had combined for 53 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — I mean, mama, there goes those men.
Down to an eight-point cushion with eight minutes remaining — and Ed Davis oddly fouled out — the Nets needed to stay firm against their elite enemies. And guess who came to push the pedal to the floor?
You guessed it. The man of the hour. The iciest left-hander this side of the river. D’Angelo Muscles. The hotter half of hit-making duo Din’Angelo. Russell, locked and loaded, came out firing with the game on the line.
But with three minutes left, the Nets lead was just four. Then two. Gulp, would this be the heartbreaking finale that most onlookers anticipated? Would they really waste one of the Nets’ best backcourt performances in the last decade? Like clockwork, J.J. Redick hit a three-pointer with 1:03 remaining to give Philadelphia their first lead since 2-0 — seriously… now?
Joey Buckets, hello. Russell penetrated and kicked to Harris for his first three-pointer of the evening — but Embiid immediately countered with an And-1 to put the Sixers back up by one. Enter, of course, Dinwiddie, akin to two boxers trading haymakers, to give the Nets the lead again. With 11 seconds left, a timeout would give Philadelphia their final lifeline and the Nets clinging on with all they had left.
And wouldn’t you know it, Jimmy Butler was there to save the game for the 76ers once more.
Isolated on Hollis-Jefferson, Butler took a stepback three-pointer to put his side up by two points. With just 0.4 seconds remaining, the Nets would not even get a shot off. At the buzzer, it was Butler’s gut-wrenching blow, the game-winner, the elite shot-making that would finally sink the Nets despite two magical efforts. Against conference royalty and a division rival, it’s crushing to let a double-digit lead slip out of reach — this is a loss that’ll sit with the Nets for some time.
The stats: 38 PTS, 16-28 FG, 8 REB, 8 AST, 1 TOV
Cook ’em up, D’Angelo.
Russell needs to find his night-in, night-out consistency still, but he continues to be an absolute joy to watch with the ball. When Russell wiggles to careen through tight spaces, zipping passes that many others wouldn’t even see — that otherworldly potential is beyond recognizable.
Even better, instead of fading away, Russell aggressively wrote his own third-quarter narrative. With 13 points in that frame, he danced his way through the lane, lifting up over hulking frontcourt opponents time and time again. For a young player with a laundry list of magical performances already, this effort has to rank right up there near the top.
When Russell competes like this, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Nets not matching an offer sheet next summer.
The stats: 17 PTS, 7-11 FG, 10 REB, 3 TOV
Other than a couple fearsome dunks from Allen, it was just another day at the office for the mammoth center. His numbers aren’t super eye-popping, and he failed to record a block, but he did well enough against the All-NBA-worthy Embiid and it’s hard to argue against his double-double effort here to boot.
We certainly won’t.
The stats: 31 PTS, 11-15 FG, 3 REB, 5 AST, 3 TOV
While this night ultimately belonged to Russell, Dinwiddie remains the Nets’ poster boy for consistency.
When Dinwiddie pops off, Russell can often go quiet. But when Russell explodes, Dinwiddie always makes sure to play his part along the way. Of course, his effort against Philadelphia ranks slightly higher just chipping in, but he’ll be happy with the win. Atkinson has had the luxury of bringing Dinwiddie off the bench all season, so when both guys cook like this, it’s a golden haven of pure playmaking basketball.
The stats: 13 PTS, 6-9 FG, 6 REB, 1 AST
Back in the starting lineup, Hollis-Jefferson turned in one of his best performances in some time. Tasked with guarding both Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler too, RHJ did a little bit of everything. In those fleeting moments without a point guard-led bucket, Hollis-Jefferson picked up the slack efficiently.
Although Butler would get the last laugh on the game-winner, it was a promising effort for the forward. When he plays in confident control, RHJ is the perfect foil for this growing Nets roster.