Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving left town barely a week ago, but it appeared on Wednesday night that the Nets may have a new star.
This is what hope looks like for the new-look Nets: a long, 6-foot-6, two-way standout who can score from everywhere.
Mikal Bridges did everything — including close the game for a team that needed a closer — and scored a career-high 45 points in an impressive, 116-105 victory over the Heat in front of a sellout crowd of 17,963 at Barclays Center.
The fifth-place Nets (34-24) will enter the All-Star break on a positive note as they moved 2 ½ games up on the Heat (32-27), who fell to the seventh seed because the sixth-place Knicks won Wednesday. Games like this one will be important for the Nets to avoid the play-in tournament.
Bridges scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Nets ran away from a solid Miami team. Midway through the period, Bridges took over, scoring 15 straight Nets points. During that stretch, the Nets’ one-point lead ballooned to 10 with 4:55 to go.
In a game that featured Heat stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Bridges was the best player on the court. During the game-changing spurt, Bridges broke down Butler off the dribble and finished with a jumper while drawing a foul. Then, excellent ball movement found Bridges in the corner, from where he nailed one of his four 3-pointers on the night. After that, Spencer Dinwiddie found Bridges on a cut, and he banked in the running layup.
Bridges scored from all levels, seemingly at will, and finished 17-for-24, 4-for-6 from 3-point range and 7-for-7 from the free-throw line.
When Irving and Durant left, the Nets not only lost stars, but also game plans. Their offense had been built around the pair of all-time scorers.
Wednesday, Bridges led the starting group and Cam Thomas (19 points on 6-for-11 shooting) paced the reserves, showing the blueprint for a defense-minded team trying to find its way.
After the Heat’s Jamaree Bouyea made a free throw with 2.7 seconds left in the third quarter, Ben Simmons wound up and threw a full-court pass to Bridges, who came down with the ball, spun and nailed a 12-footer to extend the Nets’ lead to 83-80 entering the last period.
The Nets have a long way to go, but they have begun showing signs of cohesion.
Neither team led by more than six points in a competitive first half, when the full-strength Nets — for the first time this season, albeit after Durant and Irving exited — debuted their new rotations and got plenty from their hopeful new star.
Bridges went 6-for-8 to score 17 points in a strong first half, emerging as the No. 1 option. When the Heat extended their lead to six late in the second quarter, it was Bridges who called for the ball and responded with a banked runner, also drwaing a foul. He sank the free throw to cut the gap to three.
Yuta Watanabe, Edmond Sumner, Day’Ron Sharpe and Patty Mills never entered the game as the Nets’ rotations were pruned. Head coach Jacque Vaughn turned first to Simmons, who had to turn jeers into cheers.
Upon entering at the eight-minute mark of the first quarter, Simmons heard plenty of boos from a Brooklyn crowd that has watched him struggle the majority of the season.
But the often confounding fallen star forced Miami into a turnover. Bridges found Simmons for a layup, before Simmons returned the favor and found Bridges in the corner for a 3-pointer to make it 14-9 Nets early in the first.
A few minutes later, Simmons badly missed a hook shot (which has become his shot of choice), a step back seemingly always appearing after a step forward.