The Nets’ season opener had an easy list of things to watch. At the top was how did Ben Simmons look after a healthy preseason.
Few predicted a scoring battle between Cam Thomas and Cavaliers forward Max Strus would capture attention But the team’s stars had the final say and it was Donovan Mitchell who left the Nets disappointed with a 114-113 loss.
Mitchell’s three-pointer with 12.1 seconds was the go-ahead dagger after Mikal Bridges sank a pair of free throws. Thomas took a fading three-pointer as time ticked down but his shot fell short as did Cam Johnson’s attempted putback.
Mitchell had 10 points in the fourth quarter to counter Bridges’ 11. The Nets led 111-105 but couldn’t hold on after leading most of the period.
“The play was for Mikal. Caris [LeVert] did a great job of fighting over and making it tough,” said coach Jacque Vaughn, who tried to call timeout during the play to no avail. “Cam was supposed to get it to Mikal. Couldn’t call timeout.”
The loss spoiled Thomas’ 36 points, which set an NBA record for most points by a reserve in a season opener. The previous record was 35 by Ricky Pierce in 1989.
Thomas brought the Nets back after they fell behind by 13 points in the first thanks to 2-for-10 shooting start. He scored 15 points in the period as the Nets trailed 37-32 and finished with 24 in the first half.
“He’s been able to do that his whole life. He’s a scorer,” Ben Simmons said. “I think he’s just learning to read the game a little bit differently and pacing himself and still making good reads.”
It was needed as the Nets’ defense struggled to contain the Cavs shooting. Strus made five three-pointers in the first half and at one point, he scored nine consecutive Cavs points, all threes, as the Cavs led 56-49.
After trailing most of three quarters, the Nets’ veterans brought them back. Royce O’Neale broke a tie at 105 with a three-pointer with 1:58 left. After the Cavaliers rallied to tie the score at 111 on a dunk by Mitchell, Bridges stepped to the free-throw line and gave the Nets back the lead with 19 seconds left.
The Nets also made their rally with Thomas just playing four minutes in the period. Vaughn chalked it up to fatigue as he said Thomas was tired after that stretch.
However, other starters were limited as well. Spencer Dinwiddie played just 1:21 in the fourth and Simmons, who said he was not a minutes limit, played just 1:53.
Vaughn also added he wanted to divvy up the minutes so as not to overload his players. Mikal Bridges, at 35 minutes, was the exception that Vaughn said wasn’t part of the plan as Nic Claxton and Dorian Finney-Smith were the next closest with 28 mins.
Mikal Bridges shot just 1-for-5 in the first half but finished with 20 points as well as six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Simmons, in his first game since Feb. 15, had just two points but made up for it with 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“It was OK. Knocked the dust off. I got much more to give this team,” Simmons said.
The Cavaliers had more balance as all five starters scored in double figures. Strus and Mitchell had 27 points.
Cam Johnson had 12 points in 26 minutes in his first action after missing the preseason because of a hamstring injury. Dennis Smith Jr. and Finney-Smith each had 10 points for the Nets off the bench.
The Nets now head to Dallas to begin a four-game trip that won’t get easier with games against the Mavericks, Hornets, Heat and Bulls.
Yet one game proved full of lessons. The Cavaliers played Bridges tough physically and it proved a lesson for what’s to come with teams focusing on him in the scouting report.
“We got to know what’s next. You got to know what to do second action or if they’re top-locking everything and back-cutting the big, we got to flow,” Bridges said. “We got to know what we’re doing. It’s the first game so we just learn from it and get ready for the next one.”