In his introductory press conference following his trade to Brooklyn last month, James Harden coined the phrase “scary hours” for the time he would spend on court with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Though the missing star power from both the Nets and Lakers took some of the luster off what was supposed to be a marquee matchup on Thursday night, count Brooklyn’s 109-98 victory over the defending champions as another statement win on this five-game West Coast road swing – and that message to the rest of the league reads: “Be afraid.”
Los Angeles was without injured All-Star big man Anthony Davis, and then found out before tip-off that point guard Dennis Schroder would be a late scratch due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Meanwhile, Durant also sat out his third straight game with hamstring woes, and the Nets are still without Spencer Dinwiddie – but in the end, in my view, any time the Nets beat LeBron James, who was in peak form on Thursday with 32 points, it’s a big deal.
The Nets seem to be rounding into shape, having won the first four games on this trip (and five overall) ahead of another must-see affair at Staples Center on Sunday versus the Clippers.
The main point the Nets are making this season is that it is less about who they play than about how they play. Brooklyn is now 10-1 versus teams over .500, yet 0-5 against the three worst teams in the Eastern Conference. If they can bottle their performances from this road trip, they look unbeatable.
The Lakers entered Thursday’s contest as the NBA’s No. 1-ranked defense, having allowed the second-fewest three-point field goals per game and the third-best opponent three-point field goal percentage. However, Brooklyn obliterated them from deep, connecting on 18-of-39 (46.2%) from behind the arc, barely missing an NBA-record third straight game with at least 20 three-pointers made.
Brooklyn managed such a high level of efficiency despite a subpar outing from Irving, who misfired on all five of his three-pointers and committed seven turnovers. Fortunately, wings Joe Harris and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot stepped up with big-time efforts, combining for 36 points.
Harris, who saw his three-point streak end earlier this season at 79 consecutive games, has made 15-of-24 (62.5%) from long range on the trip, including a 6-for-7 performance on Thursday that gave him the NBA lead at an unconscious 50.7% three-point clip this season.
The Nets as a team lead the league in a host of advanced offensive categories, including points per 100 possessions, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage. They somehow rank first in points per isolation play and are also fourth in assists ratio. Translation: No matter how, whether it’s through beauteous ball movement or supreme one-on-one skills, the Nets get buckets.
They’ve been this dominant despite the Big Three starting just six games together due to injuries, COVID-19 protocols, and Irving’s extended personal absence last month. As I noted in a prior post, give credit to Harden, who has often deferred on offense to get others involved and leads the NBA in assists, and Irving, who graciously told Harden he would move off the ball for the benefit of the team.
Head coach Steve Nash has been pushing the right buttons since an abominable Nets effort in a loss at cellar-dwelling Detroit on February 9. He’s been prescient in his starting center decisions between Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan, and configured a reliable rotation among his undersized options on his bench.
Most importantly, Nash finally has the Nets playing just enough defense to complement the awesome attack. In his postgame comments, James mentioned Brooklyn’s switch-everything defensive scheme, which he said coerced L.A. into playing iso-ball. The Lakers had early success with back cuts to the basket, but Brooklyn’s halftime adjustments seemed to quash those opportunities.
This has been a positive recent trend, with the Nets owning the league’s seventh-best defensive rating in third quarters over the last four games, per NBA.com. On Tuesday, the Nets turned the screws on the Suns to erase a 21-point halftime deficit in an improbable 128-124 victory.
Finishing defensive possessions with rebounds remains a concern, especially when the Nets go super small with Green at center, but an emphasis on gang-rebounding has Brooklyn grabbing 75.7% of defensive rebounds on the trip, the eighth-best rate in the league over that stretch. Harden has been the biggest beneficiary, averaging more than eight boards per game in the four games.
I would still like to see the Nets add some beef at center and forward this season, but getting the nearly seven-foot Durant back will be a game-changer. In his first action since injuring his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, KD has been splendid, averaging 29 points and 7.3 rebounds per game with a 52.4/43.4/87.0 shooting split.
A Nets/Lakers NBA Finals, with all elements in good health, would be the antithesis of scary; the warning label would state clearly that it would be best for fans not to avert their eyes, or else they might miss a wondrous possession of the highest-quality basketball.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.