Just when the critics were fully locked and loaded to unleash on the Brooklyn Nets after their loss to the Washington Wizards, where they gave up 149 points in regulation, Brooklyn reminded everyone of their potential and showed why star-power is so highly valued in the NBA.
With 4:37 left in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ Tuesday night game against the Clippers, Kyrie Irving pulled up from behind the arc and drilled a deep 3 to extend Brooklyn’s lead to five.
The next trip down, it was James Harden’s turn as he mirrored Irving’s move to hit his own deep stepback 3 to add to the Nets lead.
And not to be outdone, Kevin Durant followed with his own pullup jumper a minute later to put the Nets up six with three minutes remaining.
Simply put, the Clippers had no answer down the stretch for Brooklyn’s Big Three as the Nets beat Los Angeles 124-120.
The Clippers came into the game with the league’s best record, the best perimeter lockdown duo, and it didn’t matter.
Brooklyn’s star-studded trio combined for 90 points on 64.7 percent shooting (33-of-51). Irving had a game-high 39 points on 23 shots, while Durant had 28 points and nine rebounds on 11-for-13 shooting. For the fourth time in his nine-game tenure as a Net, Harden had a triple-double, this time of 23 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds.
The 90 points, while something impressive every time I see it, is becoming the norm for this trio. What I took away from this game was something that this team lacked since the Harden trade: complete defensive buy-in from their marquee trio.
Durant guarded Leonard for most of the game without any help and fought through screens to stay with him. When Durant wasn’t on Leonard, Harden guarded him in the post. Even Irving, who said he “couldn’t guard a stick” against Washington, had his moment on the defensive end as he chased down George to block a shot in the third quarter. The effort from all three made it easier for the Nets to set a tone there, even though defense is still far from a strength.
“It’s got to be that way if we’re serious about this,” coach Steve Nash said after the game. “We have the luxury of offensive talent but we have to defend. That’s a really difficult team to defend. They did a great job. Again, it’s tricky when the teams are constantly taking 20 more shots than you are, but we’ll keep playing and keep getting better. But when they put forth the effort like they did tonight we’ll be tough to beat.”
Nash said his players were a lot more proactive in trying to solve their problems, rather than only letting the coaching staff direct them. Durant really took charge on the defensive end, both directing traffic and drawing up schemes.
“We just told ourselves, ‘Man up, make them shoot over the top, don’t help too much because this is the best 3-point shooting team in the league,’” Durant said. “But we stayed the course, and we controlled that iso a little bit and got out to the 3-point line and not give them wide-open 3s and I think that helped us.”
The Nets season thus far has been a rollercoaster, both on and off the court. When they have played losing teams, the Nets have clearly played down to the competition. The recent loss to the Wizards was the sixth time this season Brooklyn fell to a team with a losing record, a real troubling sign for any good team.
“After the game, we talked as a team about collectively coming together against teams that may not have the record that shows it and we’re playing to their level or we’re not playing to exceed the effort that’s needed,” Irving said. “So we just want to continue to make consistent habits of just playing the right way every single game.”
“We have to come out and not embarrass ourselves and we played like that on both ends of the ball,” Harden added. “I don’t think as a team we have that mindset every single game. Once we get that you’re going to see a different Nets team.”
But on the flip side, Brooklyn elevates its level of play when faced with the elite talents.
The Nets had previously went up against contending teams, all of which were incremental bench marks. Picking up wins over Denver, Boston, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia and Utah. But this outing against the Clippers was a level above any challenge before hand. They were a litmus test, the first of two they will have this season, the second being the Lakers.
Although the Nets had buy-in from their franchise players defensively, there is still plenty of work to do. The Clippers scored 120 points, and Brooklyn nearly blew a 10-point lead in the final 1:55 despite all three stars scoring. The Nets are ranked No. 25 in defensive rating and are giving up an average of 113 points per game. Only three NBA teams have won a title with a defense outside the top 10, and Durant starred on the most recent one, the 2018 Warriors. (The other two were the 1995 Rockets and 2001 Lakers.) Historically, the numbers aren’t on the Nets’ side if they can’t improve on that end of the floor.
Brooklyn struggled against Leonard, who scored 33 points on 50 percent shooting and routinely capitalized when Irving was switched onto him. The Clippers shot 41.7 percent from 3.
Brooklyn’s defense won by getting enough stops, but Durant dismissed the notion that the Nets could get by with being just good enough rather than elite.
Irving acknowledged the craziness to the Wizards’ late rally and said the Clippers also hit tough shots, almost repeating the meltdown the Nets had the game before. He added Brooklyn can’t continue to sweat out games like it has been. If the Nets want to embark on a deep playoff run, they have to learn how to close.
“That’s the big thing,” Irving said. “That’s the phrase. Finish the games. We’re up by 10, we’re up by eight, we’re up five with a minute to go. Finish the game.”
Brooklyn’s late-game execution took a step forward against L.A. and a huge part of credit goes to Head Coach Steve Nash. Nash played it straight and had the Nets foul late in the game instead of taking his chances, like he did when Colin Sexton sent the Nets to double-overtime and ultimately spoiled the Big Three’s debut.
In need of a late basket, the Hall of Fame point guard had a key coaching assist, telling Green to streak down the court with 7.1 seconds left while Leonard was shooting free throws. The result was the Clippers forgetting about Green, which allowed Harden to throw him a full-court pass, which Green converted for a layup while getting fouled.
Brooklyn’s stars combined for 29 of their 90 points in the fourth quarter and took turns deferring to one another instead of having one dominate a particular sequence.
When Brooklyn needed baskets on key possessions down the line, it was Irving, Harden or Durant beating their man in isolation, which froze the Clippers defense, but also by playing off of each other and not having one star be the hero. That’s when the Nets are at their most dangerous.
“You’ve got guys who can do multiple things on the floor late in the game,” Durant said. “Any coach in America wants the ball in their best players’ hands, and I think we’ve got three guys that are unselfish, that know how to play and I think we made the right plays down the stretch, especially Kyrie and James controlling the ball. I feel like, when those guys got it out top, they have the defense at their mercy. We’ve got to continue to be on the same page late in the games.”
Throughout the season, Brooklyn has been transparent about its problems, whether it’s defense, playing down to opponents, or simply not being on the same page on a certain possession or sequence. But this win showed a legitimate effort to address those issues, despite the limitations of the season and the fact that the group has been together for just three weeks.
Going forward the goal has to be shooting out those rough edges, and becoming better team defenders. I know it. You know it. Even James Harden and the Nets know it.
“Once we get that down pat eventually you’re talking about blowing teams out,” Harden said. “Because offensively we got it. And we’ll figure it out. We’ll continue to figure it out. Defensively, we have to figure it out. That’s what it has to be for us to be playing at the end.”
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