Nets’ Ben Simmons starts, but Brooklyn undermanned against Mavericks



The Nets shamelessly beat up on a severely short-handed 76ers team on Saturday in Philadelphia, one of their most lopsided victories of the season. But it was their turn on Tuesday to make the most of what they had.

Brooklyn was without Cam Johnson (left adductor tightness), Lonnie Walker IV (left hamstring tightness), Dorian Finney-Smith (left ankle sprain) and Day’Ron Sharpe (left knee hyperextension) against the Dallas Mavericks, which left the team with eight active players signed to standard NBA deals.

“We’re just standing in the tightness bucket right now,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said before Tuesday’s game.

Ben Simmons returned from his latest one-game absence at an ideal time. He sat out the front end of Brooklyn’s back-to-back, Monday’s 109-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors, for precautionary reasons.

Vaughn said Johnson and Walker both underwent MRI exams on Tuesday to assess the severity of their injuries. An update on their status will be provided in the coming days.

Johnson finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists in two blocks against the Warriors on Monday. He left the game with 10:51 left in regulation and did not return. Walker, who missed 17 straight games earlier in the season because of a left hamstring strain, played just five minutes in the first quarter.

To make up for the lack of healthy bodies, Jalen Wilson, Noah Clowney and Keon Johnson were called up from the G League. The last time all three appeared in the same NBA game was Dec. 27 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“That’s all we got,” Vaughn said.

Wilson (17 points, 16 rebounds), Clowney (15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Johnson (19 points) all played well in Long Island’s 118-116 over Raptors 905 on Monday night. Tuesday’s game with the big club offered another opportunity for growth, no matter how many minutes they ultimately received.

“That part’s been really cool for me to see, because I get a chance to see them on video and all of them from Keon, Jalen, Noah,” Vaughn said. “And so I get a chance to see those dudes and see the progress… When we started changing our defense with the Nets, so did Long Island, and so there’s a synergy between us that we’re always communicating with each other.”

SIMMONS STARTS

The Nets’ plan was to ease Simmons back into action after he missed 38 straight games because of a pinched nerve in his lower back. However, given the team’s frontcourt situation on Tuesday, Vaughn was forced to start Simmons for the first time since Nov. 6, which was Simmons’ last game before his inactive streak began.

However, Vaughn did not outright tell reporters that Simmons was starting ahead of the game. He preferred to keep them guessing.

“The last time y’all asked me about starting, I got backlash for that, too,” Vaughn said. “Not one person… Who’s coaching the All-Star game? [Chris] Finch and Doc Rivers? None of them have said this is my starting unit for the rest of the year. I guarantee that. No coach does. I’m going to ask coach Van Gundy when he comes in. Did he say 50 games in, these are my starters for the rest of the year? No, that’s not how it works. You deal with the terrain you have and the hand that you’re dealt. We’ve had injuries and my objective is always to put a unit out there that’s going to compete and fit with the second unit around it.”

Simmons started the game with Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Thomas and Nic Claxton. It was the first time Brooklyn had used that starting lineup this season.

CREDIT IS DUE

Dennis Smith Jr. had another terrific game off the bench in Monday’s loss to Golden State, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals in 31 minutes. It was just another example of just how far he’s come as a player since being drafted ninth overall by Dallas in 2017.

While the 26-year-old has been a journeyman throughout his career, he continues to play some of his best basketball this season in Brooklyn. And his impact, especially on defense, has been beyond that of players who are typically signed to one-year, veteran minimum deals.

“I love seeing the growth of guys,” Vaughn said. “And seeing where he started in the league and where he is now, his journey is different from the next dude in the locker room. He is a guy that we use his voice in the locker room. And his defensive intensity even the other night. The ability to climb into the basket and create when needed is something we miss when he isn’t playing. And so, we will need it tonight whether he is picking up Luka [Doncic], whether he is guarding Ky, all the above. He has the ability to do so.”



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