3 key takeaways from Brooklyn’s decisive loss to Nuggets

The Brooklyn Nets were riding high when they took down the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets for their fifth win in six games one week ago. Since then, they have dropped two straight, tightening their race with the Miami Heat for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Brooklyn welcomed Denver for a rematch Sunday after the Nuggets fell to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden Saturday. And the Nets’ descent back to earth continued as they were thoroughly outclassed in a 108-102 loss.

Three Nets Takeaways In Loss To Nuggets

3. Cam Johnson’s shooting struggles continue

Cam Johnson arrived in Brooklyn alongside Mikal Bridges as a centerpiece of the blockbuster trade that sent Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns. Bridges has broken out as one of the league’s most efficient players post-All-Star break while leading the Nets. But that success has not followed his “twin” with Johnson shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three.

Johnson, a career 40 percent 3-point shooter with Phoenix, has been unable to find a consistent role in Brooklyn’s new-look offense. Those struggles continued against Denver with the 26-year-old shooting 5-of-13 from the field and 1-of-6 from three. Johnson said that his three-point struggles Sunday were frustrating given the quality of the shots he received:

“They felt good. They’re just not going in right now,” he said postgame. “I can only speak on myself, but that’s life as a basketball player. If it was easy everybody would be shooting threes and making them. You gotta weather storms and continue to shoot. But it’s tough because I thought we had a lot of good looks tonight. A lot of good looks that just went in and out.

“Sometimes games go like that but we can’t let it affect us on the defensive end and have to continue to shoot them when we get those opportunities.”

2. Jamal Murray’s huge first quarter gives Nuggets control

Jamal Murray’s second-half struggles had sparked questions about Denver’s playoff capabilities in recent weeks. The Nuggets’ number two scorer had been unable to find his rhythm offensively, shooting just 41.1 percent from the field in 12 games since the All-Star break. Murray broke out of those struggles and then some against Brooklyn.

The Kentucky product dropped 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first quarter of the Denver win. It didn’t take long for Murray to take advantage of the Nets’ trapping defense against Nikola Jokic. He navigated the floor with ease while draining threes, bullying his way down low, and elevating to a smooth pull-up in the mid-range.

Jokic did his usual damage, posting 22 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists while dissecting Brooklyn’s defense off doubles. However, it was Murray’s unconscious start that provided the separation Denver has been unable to find during a 1-5 stretch heading into Sunday.

1. Nets’ 3-point struggles stall offense

Jacque Vaughn has emphasized throughout this season that he wants his team to attempt 40 threes per game. That shot profile has been critical as the Nets, who get to the rim at the lowest rate in the league, attempt to keep pace with high-powered offenses. In the simplest of terms, Brooklyn lives and dies by the three. It’s a reality that Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said makes the Nets a dangerous team when speaking about their small-ball capabilities pregame:

“(Dorian) Finney-Smith as their backup five made five threes last game. And then Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson plus Harris, Curry, and O’Neale off the bench. They just have shooting everywhere,” Malone said. “That to me is what concerns me most about Brooklyn is we outrebounded them by 21, we dominated the paint, but can we guard the three-point shooting that we have?”

Vaughn’s squad died a slow death Sunday, shooting 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) from beyond the arch through the first three quarters. Finney-Smith, Johnson, Royce O’Neale and Joe Harris, the Nets’ four complementary wing shooters, combined for just 3-of-15 from deep. The performance comes after the Nets mustered just 96 points against the Kings Thursday.

The loss cuts Brooklyn’s lead on the Miami Heat for sixth place in the East to 1.5 games with 11 remaining. The Nets will close out a four-game homestand with back-to-back matchups against the Cleveland Cavaliers before traveling to Miami for a critical road matchup Saturday.

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