Donovan Mitchell ruins Cam Thomas’ huge game, Nets lose to Cavaliers

Cam ThomasThe latest offensive explosion wasn’t enough for the Nets to overcome Cavaliers superstar Donovan Mitchell’s late-game heroics.

Mitchell made two field goals with 12.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter Wednesday to give Cleveland a 114-113 home opener at Barclays Center despite Thomas’ 36 points off the Brooklyn bench.

Mitchell, who is from Westchester County, sank a wide-open look after a collision with linebacker Cam Johnson that left the other on the floor. The game-winner capped off a 27-point performance by Mitchell, who also made two baskets in the final three minutes to tie the game.

The Nets had a chance to answer after Mitchell’s clutch shot, but Thomas couldn’t follow up on a three-pointer of his own on a layup that Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said was set up for Mikal Bridges.

“I couldn’t call a timeout,” Vaughn said afterward. “But I’m trying to get it over the half court.

Mitchell’s magic overshadowed an otherwise electrifying night from Thomas, who fueled a sluggish Nets offense with 15 first-quarter points and kept scoring.

Trailing 16-7 less than five minutes into the game, Vaughn turned to Thomas as the first player off the bench. Thomas scored the Nets’ final 11 points in the quarter and had 24 by halftime. Cleveland led by as many as 13 early, but the Thomas-led Nets responded to tie it, 63-63, through two quarters.

Thomas’ 36 points were the most in NBA history off the bench in a season opener. He played 25 minutes and made a team-high 13 of 21 field goal attempts.

“You want to win, but it’s always good to think about what you did well,” Thomas said. “Obviously you want to win because it will be a lot better, but it’s good to do it (in) the first game of the year. I just have to keep building on it. It was just one game. I rely on consistency.”

The 6-3 guard’s role was one of the Nets’ biggest questions heading into the 2023-24 campaign, despite scoring 40 points in four games last season, including three straight in February when the team traded superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Thomas struggles defensively, and his greatest strength as an isolation shooter doesn’t fit the style of team basketball that Vaughn envisions. His playing time was reduced last season, but he was Brooklyn’s best option on Wednesday.

Ben Simmons, who says he’s finally healthy after injury-plagued seasons, scored just four points but led Brooklyn with nine assists and 10 rebounds. Bridges, who averaged a career-high 26.1 points per game after joining the Nets in Durant’s offseason deal with Phoenix, scored a modest 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting.

The regular season began as each of the Nets’ four preseason games did, with Brooklyn’s elaborate defense struggling early on. Cleveland scored 37 points in the first quarter, with Mitchell hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer over Johnson on his team’s opening possession and later using a slick Eurostep to finish in transition.

“Our starts have to be better,” Vaughn said. “I thought Cleveland was extremely physical with us throughout the game. …I told the guys we have to be a “more” team. More responsibility. More physical. More disruptive. More communicative.”

Bridges added: “I thought we were just lax. Especially the first unit, it was the whole preparation where we started slow, so we have to be better for that. But the bench picked us up and just kept going.”

The Nets eventually settled down defensively, holding the Cavaliers to 27 or fewer points in each of the final three quarters, but couldn’t stop what mattered most on Mitchell’s final shot.

“We’re going to be in the games,” Vaughn said. “It’s a great test for us at the beginning of the year to decide how we’re going to finish games.”

Next up for the Nets is a four-game road trip starting Friday night in Dallas in their first game with Irving since his trade with the Mavericks.

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