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NY Post
New York Post
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:The Nets have yet to find a way to beat the Sixers, but they’ve found their core

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Brooklyn is on the verge of getting swept out of the postseason, but two Nets have acquitted themselves well and cemented their status as building blocks going forward. And the high-level playoff experience Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson already had under their belts is part of the reason why.

The Nets came into Saturday’s do-or-die first-round Game 4 matinee at Barclays Center down 0-3 to Philadelphia, a deficit no team in NBA history has ever overcome (although it’s possible Joel Embiid’s absence with a sprained knee could extend the series a bit). Few have acquitted themselves well, but Bridges and Johnson are that few, standing out while most have wilted under the heat of the playoff spotlight.

“It hurts,” Bridges said. “I mean, we just want to win. And we had an opportunity (Thursday), but we just couldn’t finish the game. But yeah, it hurts. Losing in general hurts. … Just got to go out there and win, and just play harder than them.”

Bridges and Johnson have played as hard as any Net or harder, which bodes well for Saturday and beyond.

The former is averaging a series-best 25.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while largely holding three-time scoring champion James Harden to 38.8 percent shooting.

The latter is averaging 21.0 points on .500 shooting from behind the arc.

The so-called twins’ playoff experience — including reaching the 2021 NBA Finals with the Phoenix Suns — has played a huge role in that playoff production.

“Yeah, specifically those two,” Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn said. “And Royce [O’Neale] also; all the guys that played, Spencer [Dinwiddie] and Do[rian Finney-Smith] and Seth [Curry], those guys have played high level games, meaningful playoff games when it really mattered. And it is definitely different basketball. The importance of each possession.

With the experience of reaching the NBA Finals in 2021 with the Suns, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have been among the few Nets to play well against the Sixers.
NBAE via Getty Images

“They understand the margins at this time of the year. And there’s a mental piece of it, too. Cam Johnson is 1-for-4 the first half of [Thursday’s] game, and for him to be able to mentally stay in the moment and play the way he did in the second half, you’re not doing that unless you’ve been in that situation before.”

After a four-point first half in Thursday night’s gut-wrenching Game 3 loss to Philadelphia, Johnson responded in the second with 13 points, four assists, three rebounds and 5-of-8 shooting.

He finished with 17 points, while Bridges poured in a game-high 26 to go with six rebounds and five assists.

Johnson credited his seasoning with the Suns for helping him keep his head against the 76ers.

“I think the biggest way it helps is that you understand that anything can happen, one,” Johnson said. “And, two, just because something’s going well for you in one moment — one game going well [or] going poorly — does not mean that result will repeat itself.

“You kind of have to earn it every possession every minute of each game. So you just kind of come in with that mindset, and kind of just have that experience to play a little bit more free and a little bit more confident in yourself, because you know you’ve been in moments similar. But I’ve tried to tell … guys all the experience means is you don’t know what tomorrow brings.”

Even more than the trove of draft picks, the so-called “twins” (dubbed that because they were so close in Phoenix) were the centerpieces of the February trade that sent former MVP Kevin Durant to the Valley of the Sun.

Mikal Bridges #1 of the Brooklyn Nets drives to the basket as James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers defends during the first quarter of game 3 in round 1 of the NBA Playoffs.

After playing the role of defensive specialist in Phoenix, Bridges has adapted quickly to being the top offensive option in Brooklyn.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Privately, the Nets have expressed they’ve exceeded all expectations, both on the court and off. Between the tumult of the Kyrie Irving era, and the lack of availability of their stars that thwarted the Big Three experiment, both the front office and coaches have gushed over the Bridges-Johnson pair’s reliability and positive locker room impact.

Bridges, just starting a team-friendly four-year deal, averaged 26.1 points and 4.5 rebounds since joining the Nets, and looks like a potential All-Star and the sort of player an established superstar like Portland’s Damian Lillard might want to team up with (more on that later).

Johnson, a pending restricted free agent, averaged 16.6 and 4.8 with the Nets, who can proactively extend him, or match any summer offer for his services. More and more it seems incomprehensible that they’d let him escape.

While many players struggle against playoff game-planning — especially possible for Bridges in going from tertiary option to No. 1, and backup the prior two years to lockdown starter — the “twins” haven’t.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Nets can’t say the same, especially in tense endgame situations.

Brooklyn got outscored 21-10 down the stretch Thursday to blow a late six-point lead. Figuring out how to close out games like that is a learned art, one it took Bridges and Johnson’s Suns — even with Chris Paul and Devin Booker — time to learn.

“For one, we’ve really got to string together a better 48 with less lapses; and for two, just finish better,” Johnson said. “It’s something I noticed early in my years in Phoenix is that winning and executing late game and winning close games is a real skill. And it’s a real team skill. And that’s something that we’re still developing and it’s something that we’re learning from.

Cameron Johnson #2 of the Brooklyn Nets puts up a shot as De’Anthony Melton #8 of the Philadelphia 76ers is too late to defend during the first quarter of game 3 in round 1 of the NBA Playoffs.

Johnson said his past playoff experiences have taught him that executing in crunch-time situations is a skill that takes time to develop.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But down 0-3, the Nets don’t have the luxury of time. That development will likely be next season, with Bridges and Johnson leading the way.

The twins are not only the two leading scorers for the post-trade deadline day Nets, but the only ones averaging more than 15.4 points in an offensively-challenged first-round series against Philadelphia.

Want to catch a game? The Nets schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

Arguably Brooklyn’s best quarter since the trade deadline was their 35-18 third quarter in Game 3, their biggest third-quarter margin in team playoff history. It was also the first stretch where both of the twins were clicking at the same time.

Johnson had 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, and Bridges nine with an assist a block and unexpected post-up play.

“I think it was our pace,” Johnson said. “We got up 3s, we got stops, they weren’t at the line, we were able to guard them pretty effectively.”

Added Vaughn: “Really wanted to get Mikal going each quarter. That was possible, so that was really the intent behind that. It coincided with CJ being in the game. [We’re] just trying to find matchups and having multiple guys out there all the time who are being aggressive and to take advantage of some matchups.”

It came with Lillard seated courtside, a visit so low-key and clandestine that Vaughn insisted Friday that he had no clue about it until informed by his son.

Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on during the third quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center on April 09, 2023 in Portland, Oregon.

Damian Lillard, who recently told ESPN how much he appreciated Bridges’ game, was an interested guest at Thursday’s Game 3 in Brooklyn.
Getty Images

“What was that about?” Vaughn asked. “If y’all got something, let me know.”

What we know is the 32-year-old superstar has publicly put Portland on notice, saying he has no interest sticking around for another arduous rebuild. And he also told ESPN, “I love Mikal Bridges.” (A viral video of the two dancing would seem to confirm that.)

Brooklyn promptly rejected an offer of four first-round picks for Bridges right after he was acquired in February, and they’ve only internally grown more enamored with him since. Just a year into a four-year, $90 million contract, he isn’t going anywhere. Johnson rejected a four-year, $72 million pact from Phoenix, and could easily fetch an annual salary of $20 million or more.

But that seems likely to be in Brooklyn, even more so after his playoff performance.

“I’ve said this — because this was a topic of discussion when I didn’t sign the extension — that I’m still under contract at this moment,” Johnson told The Post earlier. “My goal right now is to win games and make a playoff push.”