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Jimmy Butler’s clutch free throws sink Cam Thomas, Nets as Heat narrow out victory

In a game where neither the Nets nor Heat could buy a bucket, the final result was decided at the charity stripe. A pair of Jimmy Butler free throws in overtime lifted Miami to a 96-95 win at Barclays Center, handing Brooklyn its third straight loss.

How things played out down the stretch, however, is where it gets controversial.

Jimmy Butler drew a foul with 11.8 seconds left in overtime and made both free throws to put Miami up 96-95. Dennis Smith Jr. was Butler’s defender during the play in question, and whether he fouled Butler or not was debatable.

Head coach Jacque Vaughn decided not to challenge the call, seemingly to preserve a timeout to set up a game-winning shot. But when Brooklyn got the ball back, he opted not to take the timeout anyway. The Nets then had to go the full length of the court on their final possession of the game and failed to get a clean look.

Game over.

“I got a chance to look at it real quickly during the game and just felt they weren’t going to overturn that,” Vaughn said. “We felt Dennis had his left arm wrapped around the backside of the driver, and I didn’t think using the timeout they were going to overturn that call.”

That explains the rationale behind not challenging Smith’s foul, but why no timeout at the end of overtime?

The Nets (16-23), who have now lost 13 of their last 16 games overall, started 1-for-11 from the field and 1-of-10 from deep. They blew a handful of defensive coverages early and gave up some easy dunks. It was a 9-8 game with 5:19 left in the first quarter when Thomas checked in for Cam Johnson. Then the Nets’ offense took off.

“I wish I knew [why we keep starting games slow] so we wouldn’t keep doing it, but I don’t know,” Thomas said.

The 22-year-old guard quickly went to work, scoring nine points in his first five minutes on the court to help Brooklyn build a 22-16 advantage entering the second quarter. Over the next 12 minutes of action, the Nets continued to take advantage of Miami’s poor shooting, outscoring them 23-15 to take a 45-31 lead into the locker room at halftime. They led 31-19 early in the second quarter.

The Heat shot just 26.2% from the field in the first half, the lowest field goal percentage the Nets have allowed this season. It was also the fewest points Brooklyn has allowed in a half this season, which contributed to its third-largest halftime lead of the season.

The Nets continued to double down defensively to start the third quarter, even building a 16-point lead with 10:50 left in the period. But Miami eventually responded with a 12-0 run to draw closer. It outscored Brooklyn 37-24 overall in the third quarter and trailed by a point entering the final frame. The Nets went 8-for-21 in the period and Thomas did not check back in until the 4:14 mark, long after his team’s 16-point lead had evaporated.

“You know it becomes interesting; with [Thomas] not starting and given that first group, usually that’s like a eight minute stretch, seven minute stretch and then he finishes the first,” Vaughn said. “And a lot of times I’ll let him run that entire second.

“Just managing those stints consecutively, and with him not starting it makes it difficult to play those dudes before him also that are starting and have him have a good stretch. But I knew the way the game was going that he was going to have a long stretch in the fourth

A back-and-forth affair throughout the fourth quarter, Bam Adebayo split a pair of free throws with 5.9 seconds left, which gave the Nets — trailing by two points — a chance to tie or take the lead at the buzzer. Thomas had missed everything on a long 3-pointer just seconds prior.

Out of a timeout, Mikal Bridges drove into the paint and drew a foul on Tyler Herro. Miami challenged the ruling on the court but were unsuccessful. Bridges calmly knocked down both free throws, then Butler missed an elbow jumper at the other end to force overtime.

Bridges calmly knocked down both free throws, then Butler missed an elbow jumper at the other end to force overtime. Dorian Finney-Smith was Butler’s primary defender on the play, with an additional contest from Smith late.

Bridges drove into the lane on Brooklyn’s final possession of the game and pulled up for a mid-range jumper, but the attempt fell short. He appeared to draw plenty of contact on the shot, but no call was made.

The Nets are 0-3 in overtime games this season.

“No, I didn’t get fouled,” Bridges said when asked if he felt contact on his game-winning attempt.

After the game, Vaughn also explained why he decided not to call a timeout on the final possession of overtime.

“Eleven seconds on the clock, we have shooters on the floor, a great opportunity for them not to sub,” Vaughn said. “They kept Herro in the game. We tried to attack him and turn the corner.

“Really good defense by Jimmy Butler. We got a shooter spotted up in the left corner, Royce [O’Neal] is peeling at the top and Cam Thomas is over in the right corner. I don’t think I’m going to be able to draw anything up better than that. Nic [Claxton] in the dunker ready for offensive rebounds. So the picture was pretty clear for us.”

The overall lack of offensive production by both teams in this game was astonishing, especially in the first half. Brooklyn wound up shooting 34% from the field for the game (34-for-100) while Miami converted on just 37.9% of its attempts (33-for-87).

That is correct. The Nets attempted 13 more shots and 24 more 3-pointers than Miami and still found a way to lose on Monday night — a true testament to their collective offensive struggles in recent games.

“We can’t let making shots control our energy,” Bridges said. “That fight, that’s what it gets to.”

Thomas finished with 23 points, two rebounds and three assists. And while it was not the most efficient night for Bridges (10-of-24), he still managed to chip in 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists. O’Neale had 15 points and five 3-pointers off the bench.

Butler scored a game-high 31 points for Miami while Herro added 29 points.

It was the second time Vaughn’s team has been held under 100 points this season. Both games resulted in a loss. Brooklyn has now lost three games in a row entering this week’s three-game West Coast swing, where it will face the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Clippers.

The Nets’ next game at Barclays Center will be played on Jan. 23 against the Knicks.