The game began just like any other for Brooklyn in recent weeks. It did not have any juice. The Nets fell behind 13-4 in a blink. Shots were not falling. The team was struggling to create stops on defense. It was trending toward another lopsided defeat inside Crypto.com Arena.
But the lights were not too bright for Thomas, who grew up a Lakers fan. He checked in with 7:01 left in the first quarter and went to work immediately, giving fans his best Kobe Bryant impression under the same banners Bryant helped hang. And the 22-year-old would not be denied. Thomas made each of his first six shots and finished with a game-high 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting off the bench in the Nets’ 130-112 win.
There were a lot of fans in Los Angeles watching Thomas cook for the first time, a phenomenon everyone around the NBA should experience at least once. He became the youngest Brooklyn player with a 30-point game against the Lakers since Keith Van Horn in 1998. No one has scored more points off the bench against the Lakers in franchise history.
Another signature moment added to his young resume.
“I feel like the goalpost always moves for me from everything I watch,” Thomas told reporters after the game. “When people now score all these points its always praise. But when I do it, score all these points, there’s always a knock. Oh, he can’t play defense. Oh, he doesn’t pass. But I see other people doing the same thing it’s praise… Me being me, I don’t care. I don’t really look at stuff like that. I just know what I do and what I bring to a team and how it’s appreciated on a team. So really just staying true to myself and not letting trolls or anything get in my head about stuff like that.
“Every team that picked ahead of Brooklyn [when I came out], I just go out there and try to kill them every time… Just trying to show everybody they made a mistake.”
Thomas’ play was contagious. Nic Claxton and Lonnie Walker IV also enjoyed perfect starts on offense, each making their first four shots. The Nets wound up shooting 52.6% from the field and made 19 3-pointers, their best effort from behind the arc since the end of November. They also dished out 31 assists as a team and had seven players reach double figures in scoring, including Thomas, Claxton, Walker, Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dennis Smith Jr.
The Nets (17-24) played with the same levels of effort, energy and fight that made them one of the more competitive teams in the Eastern Conference through their first 23 games of the season. We saw big-time plays. Swagger. Decisive runs. Intricate celebrations on the court, on the bench. Force. When the team needed stops late it got them, despite giving up a combined 50 points to LeBron James, Anthony Davis and D’Angelo Russell in the first half.
Brooklyn’s performance on Friday night did not wash out the bad taste that came with getting swept by Portland, the blown leads, the pathetic starts, the uninspired play that defined this group in recent weeks. But it did prove that whatever magic the Nets did have early in the season, it is still there — somewhere.
A game like this was desperately needed for this group. For the first time in a while, they have something they can build on.
“It’s a good step in the right direction,” Thomas said. “But to be honest we really didn’t do anything. It’s just one game of us putting it all together. We have another tough game coming up on Sunday against a team that’s rolling. The Clippers are playing well, playing great ball. We just have to look at this film and try to translate it to the next [game]. This game is over with… We have to turn it up another notch.”