Nets hold off Rockets, 106-104

NEW YORK — Saturday’s game at Barclays Center offered another glimpse at what this Nets team can be when engrossed at both ends of the court — at least through three quarters. While Jacque Vaughn’s team won 106-104 in a game that they never trailed, they are still struggling to close out opponents. Their matchup against the Houston Rockets had no business being as close as it was late.

Cam Thomas, who received his first start since Dec. 27 in place of Cam Johnson, was the player who ignited the fuse for Brooklyn on offense. He started 5 for 6 from the field and finished with a game-high 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Twenty-two of those points came in the first half, his seventh half with at least 20 points this season.

The 22-year-old’s buckets came mostly at the expense of Dillon Brooks, who was tasked with guarding him in certain stretches. And Thomas’ teammates fed off his energy early.

The Nets started 7 of 7 from the field as a team and did not miss their first attempt until the 6:52 mark of the first quarter. At that point they led Houston 17-12 after racing out to an 11-2 lead. Brooklyn was up 35-15 after one quarter with 10 assists on 15 made field goals. The 15 points they allowed in the first quarter tied a season low. It was also the Nets’ second-largest lead after one quarter this season.

The Rockets were playing in the second game of a back-to-back set and appeared to be worn out for most of the night. It was a 20-point game at halftime and an 18-point game through three quarters. However, finishing games has been a significant struggle for the Nets in recent weeks. Saturday was no different. A Cam Whitmore 3-pointer cut Brooklyn’s lead to six with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter.

But the Nets avoided the embarrassment of letting another sizable lead slip away. Following a timely steal by Dennis Smith Jr., Thomas made a crucial 3-pointer that stretched their lead back to eight points with 3:07 left. It was Brooklyn’s final made field goal of the night and gave it just enough breathing room to escape victorious.

Up four with 10 seconds left, Royce O’Neale threw the ball away on a routine in-bounds toss. The Rockets took advantage and drilled a corner 3 to make it a one-point game with seven seconds left. Thomas went 2 of 2 at the free throw line on Brooklyn’s ensuing possession. Then Fred VanVleet intentionally missed a free throw and Nic Claxton wound up fouling Alperen Sengun on the rebound. Luckily for the Nets, Sengun missed the first free throw. Two Sengun makes would have tied the game at 105 with 2.4 seconds left.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Nets (18-27), who led by as many as 28 points on Saturday. They split the season series with Houston 1-1.

Mikal Bridges finished with 19 points and five rebounds. Claxton registered his 17th double-double of the season with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Dorian Finney-Smith enjoyed his best offensive game since Dec. 26, adding 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting (4 of 8 from deep) with seven rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes. However, the forward left the court late in the third quarter after blocking a shot and landing awkwardly. He did not return to the game.

Whitmore and Jalen Green scored 19 points each for Houston.

The Nets will return to action on Monday against the Utah Jazz at Barclays Center, which is expected to be Ben Simmons’ first game since Nov. 6.