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Nets’ Cam Johnson erupts for 29 points in pivotal 124-97 defeat of Hawks

The Nets were without Ben Simmons and Cam Thomas in Tuesday’s 27-point loss to the Orlando Magic. Few stepped up in their absence and the on-court product spoke for itself.

Brooklyn, with Play-In positioning on the line, found itself in a similar situation on Thursday in the first of two back-to-back meetings with the Atlanta Hawks at home. Simmons and Thomas were once again out of the rotation because of injury. But this time Cam Johnson answered the call — and he did so emphatically — pouring in a season-high 29 points with seven 3-pointers in the Nets’ 124-97 defeat of Atlanta.

“Yeah, it feels good,” Johnson said. “I tell you guys all the time, I look forward to this rhythm and feel for the game. It slows it down for you anytime you’re in your comfortable spaces, your comfortable roles, it slows the game down for you and you’re able to process quicker, more efficiently. And sometimes good results follow that.”

It was Johnson’s second straight start following four consecutive appearances as a reserve. He started 3-of-3 from behind the arc and had 18 points by halftime, his second-highest scoring half since being traded to Brooklyn last season.

“He’s a professional,” interim head coach Kevin Ollie said. “We talked when I made the decision [to bench him] and he was just a professional. He was just like, ‘What can I do to help our team?’, and we had a great talk and he just accepted his role. And that’s what happens when you’re a good steward over the minutes that you get. God will usually work it out for you. And I think just him believing in himself, believing in the team, doing whatever it takes for the team to win, I think that just bodes very well for his character, and he’s a better person than a basketball player. And I just want to say good kudos to him, he just played lights out tonight.”

Dennis Schröder was on a heater against the Hawks, too, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in what proved to be his best all-around game since being acquired by the Nets at the trade deadline. Brooklyn improved to 23-36 and are now three games behind Atlanta for 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Dejounte Murray scored a team-high 28 points for the Hawks.

“They’re right in front of us [in the standings,” Schröder said of the Hawks. “We play them two times in a row. So we understood before the game that we had to have that hit first mentality and we did a great job of it today.”

Brooklyn was the aggressor from the start on Thursday night, riding Johnson’s hot had early on offense while playing a stifling brand of defense. It led Atlanta 34-16 after one quarter of action, its largest advantage after one quarter in over a month.

Any Nets criticism on Thursday was reserved for the second quarter, where they were outscored 34-22. The Hawks started the period on a 9-0 run to make it a 39-29 game. Atlanta began to push the pace offensively, which got Murray going and left Brooklyn off balance.

Murray, the Hawks’ top scoring threat without Trae Young available, dropped 14 points in the second quarter to trim the Nets’ advantage to six at halftime. Brooklyn went 9-of-26 from the field in the second quarter but did not allow that cold stretch to deter their effort at both ends of the court. It outscored Atlanta 38-25 in the third quarter to take firm control of the game – and they never let up.

“I just feel like we have to play with that urgency here on out for the rest of the season. It’s unfortunate that we dug ourselves a hole. It’s not what we think our group is capable of. So we have to fight our way out of that and maybe do a little bit extra.

“Tonight is just the start. It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t follow it up in the next game, the following game and keep that energy high.”

The Hawks simply had no answer for the Nets’ offense. Brooklyn shot 51.1% from the field, made 22 3-pointers as a team, had 30 assists on 46 made shots (nine turnovers) and finished with six players in double figures. Even Day’Ron Sharpe, who entered the night shooting 22.2% from 3-point range, went 2-of-2 from deep.

Atlanta was limited to 43% shooting (28.6% from deep) and had 14 turnovers, which led to 25 points for the Nets.

The Nets led wire-to-wire and enjoyed their fifth win of the season of 25 or more points. It was also just the sixth time in franchise history that Brooklyn made at least 14 more 3-pointers more than their opponent.

The next challenge becomes replicating Thursday’s success against the same team on Saturday.

“We hit first,” Ollie said. “Just our energy, our effort, those were things we could control. I’m going to keep saying that. Y’all get tired of me saying that, but that’s just part of me, that’s my coach voice, that’s what I believe in. And we’re just going to continue to be the toughest team. We have to play like that.

“Our recipe that we need to keep cooking is low turnovers and sharing the cake, and I keep saying that over and over again. But when we have nine turnovers and 30 assists, that’s our recipe for winning. And when we have high turnovers, we find ourselves in a tough game. So we just have to continue that. I know Quin [Snyder] is going to make adjustments. He’s going to come out and do his counter punching and we have to step it up to an even higher level to get that win on Saturday.”