Chesapeake native Cam Thomas’ latest offensive explosion was record-setting and memorable Wednesday night, though it wasn’t quite enough for the host Brooklyn Nets to overcome the late-game heroics of Cavaliers superstar Donovan Mitchell.
Down by two, Mitchell made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 12.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, giving Cleveland a season-opening 114-113 win at Barclays Center in Brooklyn despite Thomas’ 36 points off the Nets’ bench.
Mitchell sunk the wide-open look after a collision with defender Cam Johnson, which left the latter on the floor. The game-winner finished a 27-point performance by Mitchell, who tied the game twice with baskets in the final three minutes.
The Nets had a chance to answer after Mitchell’s clutch shot, but Thomas failed to connect on a 3-pointer of his own on a busted play that Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said was drawn up for Mikal Bridges.
“I couldn’t call timeout,” Vaughn said. “I’m across halfcourt trying to, though.”
Mitchell’s magic overshadowed an otherwise electric night by Thomas, who energized a sluggish Nets offense with 15 first-quarter points and kept on scoring from there.
Down 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 answered to tie the game at 63 through two quarters.
Thomas’ 36 points were the most ever by an NBA player off the bench in a season opener. He played 25 minutes and made 13 of his team-high 21 shots.
“You want the win, but it’s always good to reflect on what you did well,” said Thomas, who starred for Oscar Smith, Oak Hill Academy and LSU. “Obviously, you want the win because it’ll be much better, but it’s a good thing to do (in the) first game of the year. I just got to keep building on it. It was only one game. I’m big on consistency.”
The 6-foot-3 guard’s role was one of the Nets’ biggest questions entering the 2023-24 campaign, despite him scoring 40 points in four games last season, including three consecutively in February as Brooklyn traded away superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Thomas has struggled on defense, and his greatest strength as an isolation scorer doesn’t fit the style of team basketball Vaughn envisions. His playing time dwindled down the stretch last season, but on Wednesday, he was Brooklyn’s best option.
Ben Simmons, who says he’s finally healthy after back-to-back injury-plagued seasons, only scored four points, but led Brooklyn with nine assists and 10 rebounds.