Key takeaways from Nets’ nail-biter loss at Dallas

The Brooklyn Nets were dealt another heartbreaking loss Friday at Dallas, falling 125-120 to the Mavericks. Luka Doncic stole the show with 49 points on 16-of-25 shooting from the field and 9-of-14 from three, leading a miraculous comeback in the final minutes.

Here are four takeaways from Brooklyn’s second consecutive loss to open the season:

Nets offense opens up without Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton sharing the floor

A main question mark surrounding the Nets last season was Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton’s fit in Brooklyn’s starting five. Those questions persisted entering 2023-24, and Brooklyn’s season-opening loss to the Cavaliers showed why.

Brooklyn’s spacing was suspect with the team attempting 27 threes to Cleveland’s 43, resulting in a 17-9 disparity in made threes. Simmons also looked uncomfortable offensively, shooting 2-of-6 from the field with Evan Mobley patrolling the paint while covering Claxton.

However, Claxton was ruled out with an ankle injury Friday, and the Nets leaned into a small-ball, five-out philosophy, starting Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Thomas, Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith alongside Simmons. The result was a less cluttered paint and a more free-flowing offense.

Brooklyn attempted 43 threes during the loss. They made 21 (48.8 percent), with five players connecting on three or more. Simmons looked far more comfortable with an open paint surrounded by four shooters, posting 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on 5-of-8 shooting.

Simmons and Claxton are undoubtedly two of Brooklyn’s five best players, putting head coach Jacque Vaughn in a precarious situation. The Nets will likely wait for a larger sample size, but it feels like a matter of time before they move away from playing the pair of non-shooters alongside one another. When they do, another difficult question arises:

Which player sits at the end of games?

Cam Thomas shines again

Despite limited opportunities, Cam Thomas put the league on notice last season. The 21-year-old became the youngest player in NBA history to score 40-plus points in three consecutive games last season. Following the historic scoring stretch, Thomas was benched to close the year, a decision that baffled Nets fans.

However, after a successful offseason, he steps into an expanded role this year, one that may not be big enough given his elite production thus far. Thomas led Brooklyn’s offense for the second consecutive game Friday, scoring 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting. That included a tough stepback jumper with 51 seconds remaining to tie the game.

The 2021 first-round pick is the first Net in the franchise’s NBA history to score 30-plus points in the team’s first two games of a season.

The performance comes after Thomas set an NBA record for points off the bench in a season-opener, scoring 36 during Wednesday’s loss to Cleveland. Through two games, the LSU product is averaging 33.0 points on 62.5 percent shooting. Thomas has done so while stepping up his defense, a main criticism of his game early in his career.

Dinwiddie said at media day that the Nets would go as far as Ben Simmons and Mikal Bridges take them in 2023-24. He may need to edit that take with Thomas’ name in place of Simmons after the team’s first two games.

Brooklyn collapses again in final minutes

The new-look Nets could be 2-0 to start the 2023-24 season. They played two solid games against two playoff-caliber teams, but a bleak reality slapped them in the face during the final minutes of both:

They don’t have a closer, and their opponents had Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic.

After leading by six with 1:20 remaining against Cleveland, Brooklyn’s offense stalled, and Mitchell scored seven straight points to put the Nets away. In Dallas, Brooklyn led by five with 3:15 remaining. Then, Doncic happened.

The four-time All-Star drained four consecutive threes, the last of which was a last-second hook shot off glass after the Nets turned in one of their best defensive possessions of the night.

The Nets shot 2-of-6 with a turnover in the final three minutes, sealing a second consecutive late-game collapse. And Vaughn was clear about where his team has come up short through two games.

“What makes teams very special at the end of the day is they have dudes who can make tough shots, just like Donovan did against us the first night and Luka did tonight,” the coach said postgame. “That’s the difference in layers of the league, in my opinion.”

“We’ll grow to understand how to make plays like that at the end of the night. By putting ourselves in a position to win ball games, we’ll continue to learn.”

Brooklyn has the shooting and defensive personnel to be competitive in plenty of games late this season, but as of now, they don’t have a closer. Until they find one, expect similar results to these first two losses.

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