BROOKLYN — Injuries doomed the Brooklyn Nets’ championship window.
Critics can cite egos or a toxic culture, but when you boil it all down, Brooklyn lost to Milwaukee in the 2021 playoffs because of leg injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Knee injuries to Kevin Durant in consecutive seasons led to each superstar exiting town via trade in a span of just 364 days.
So when Brooklyn lost two starters this season from a lineup that many deemed playoff-fringe at best, it could have cratered yet again.
Instead, the Nets appear poised to take off.
Brooklyn has won three of its past four games without guard Ben Simmons and leading scorer Cam Thomas and is 6-5 despite not yet having its full rotation together for any game this season.
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Brooklyn opened this campaign devoid of a superstar for the first time in four years. But general manager Sean Marks got valuable players like Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Spencer Dinwiddie plus draft picks while offloading Durant and Irving.
Thus, the Nets are offensively deeper than its opponent almost every night, with six players averaging double figures, led by Thomas’ 26.3, which ranks 12th in the league. Brooklyn ranks seventh in the league in offensive rating despite ranking 24th in offensive talent, according to ESPN BPI.
“I think it has a lot to do with the twins,” Dinwiddie said, referring to Bridges and Johnson, the super-close friends who have been teammates in both Phoenix and now Brooklyn since Johnson entered the league in 2019. “We kind of go as they go.”
The Nets’ success has also coincided with their improved defense. In two-plus seasons under previous coach Steve Nash, Brooklyn never finished better than 18th in points-against per game, but it has given up just 109 points per game over its past nine games where it has gone 6-3.
“We have phenomenal defenders up and down the roster,” Dinwiddie said. “You’ve Dennis Smith Jr. and Mikal Bridges at the point of attack, you’ve got Cam [Johnson] got [forward] Royce [O’Neale], and Dorian [Finney-Smith] on the wings; big-time defenders, and you’ve got Nic Claxton who is a possible [Defensive Player of the Year] type of candidate in the background.
“There’s athleticism and length, and the care factor is there for those guys.”
Brooklyn overcomes size and talent deficiencies by outworking its opposition. The Nets are third in the league in rebounds per game (47.5) without a 7-footer on their roster — its tallest player is Claxton, who checks in at 6-foot-11 but missed eight of the Nets’ first 11 games with an ankle injury.
“When we’re whole and healthy, we should have the length and versatility to be a top-10 defensive team,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn told The Game Day Basketball before Tuesday’s victory over Orlando. “We’re incredibly rebounding at a top-five rate, which is unheard of for this group if you think about us last year.”
“That’s one of those things [Vaughn] preached was matching and exceeding that intensity level,” Dinwiddie said.
Ironically, Brooklyn has turned its lack of size into a strength. The Nets lure bigger defenders to guard the three-point line since they rank fifth in three-point percentage (40.6%), then use their quickness to get to the basket when those bigger defenders switch on screens.
“It’s a tough team to guard,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said after Milwaukee’s narrow, four-point win in Brooklyn on Nov. 6. “All their guards are fast, explosive, and are three-point threats, as well. So it presented some matchup difficulties for us just for that size and quickness.”
Simmons’ most recent back injury, a left-nerve impingement, could be a long-term factor, and Thomas’ sprained ankle probably will keep him out for at least a few more weeks. But if either returns and plays how he was — Simmons’ team-leading 10.8 rebounds per game would be ninth in the NBA if he qualified — the Nets could become even more dangerous.
But if either is resigned to the bench for long, the Nets still like their chances.
“I think the Brooklyn Nets have a strong core going forward,” Dinwiddie said. “As long as you can get the majority of those guys out there then we have a shot to win.”