There was no guarantee the Brooklyn Nets would actually show up and perform to their capabilities instead of their three-month reputation, but perhaps they were simply due.
It wasn’t Kyrie Irving’s presence that made the Brooklyn Nets put the red-hot Chicago Bulls over their knee for a good spanking, but the 138-112 knockout blow opened some eyes across the Eastern Conference and reversed an ugly, alarming trend.
The win brings their record against the NBA’s best — Milwaukee, Chicago, Golden State, Phoenix and Miami — to 1-8, meaning this type of consistency and playing up to competition hasn’t happened yet this season.
It’s a sharp contrast to last year, when they were seemingly in position to romp through the conference until James Harden went down, then Irving followed with injuries. They handled the best of the East with ease until a home Game 7 conference semifinals loss to the eventual champion Bucks.
A 43-8 run was astonishing and at times, breathtaking — players diving on the floor for loose balls (Irving probably didn’t mind his team doing that to endanger opposing players), bewildering the Bulls into empty possessions without a shot, but that level of cohesion can’t even be expected headed into the next day, for a variety of reasons.
Expecting day-to-day carryover in this league, this season, is foolish. Irving won’t play until Monday, ineligible due to the New York City vaccine mandate. Kevin Durant may sit on the second half of a back-to-back.
“These games can give a team confidence, mojo and something to build on. But it can also not,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “It’s in the bank. It’s not linear. We raised our level, we competed, we rose to the occasion, and hopefully, it’s a moment in time that helps us get to the next level.”
Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant, center, smiles with teammates Kyrie Irving, left, and James Harden during the second half their win over the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 12, 2022, in Chicago. It was the Nets’ first win against the league’s best this season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Harden joked — perhaps not — that he would inject Irving himself with the COVID-19 vaccine, given how little they’ve played together thus far on the anniversary of his trade from Houston. Sixteen games total for the most hyped offensive trio and hardly anything to show for it.
“We’ve got a chance to be that good. We just haven’t had enough of it,” Harden said. “Y’all can consistently see how great we can be. And we’re working on it.
“We gotta get [Irving] to be able to play home games. Once we get that, we can really assess it and figure out what needs to be changed or how great we can be.”
As great as this one night was, a championship can’t be won with a part-time, prime-time player. There’s no precedent for it, although this season is totally unprecedented on every level. But championships are won with continuity, sweat equity and teams that know themselves inside and out.
Harden’s statement illustrates the Nets are in an embryonic state of development, halfway through the season.
The Nets aren’t in some disastrous spot. They have the best road record in the league and with all their problems, sit a game and a half behind the surprising Bulls atop the conference.
But the margins are thin, as the Nets know full well from last spring. Can Nash navigate the waters of the playoffs, or even the topsy-turvy nature of this roster? Can Sean Marks fully know if he can rely on Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on the back line of a defense when it truly matters and the refs swallow their whistles?
For the Bulls, it was turnabout fair play seemingly after the beatdown they put on the rebuilding Pistons 24 hours before. Taking a sober approach would be proper for coach Billy Donovan, although former Bulls coach Jim Boylen probably would’ve stopped the game midway through the third quarter, emptied the United Center and had his players run wind sprints due to the embarrassment.
But it felt like the Nets would’ve put that on anybody who was in front of them on this night, even the NBA’s best. The impressiveness, the ease, has been in short supply this season. That “scary hours” comment Harden made in the preseason has yet to bear fruit, but they raised holy hell on the Bulls for two hours Wednesday night.
“We weren’t trying to make no statements to the league, who cares what they think. We know what we bring to the table,” Durant said.
Then a glint in his eye appeared and he dropped the facade to say, “I’m sure people were watching the game tonight.”
Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant looks to pass during the second half against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 12, 2022, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Durant, from here, is the baddest man on the planet — with apologies to all comers — and it hasn’t been enough to lift the Nets from inconsistency, bad losses and even worse showings against other marquee teams.
In theory, it should only take but so much to aid him, but the team’s composition is so dependent on Irving and Harden to be superstars there’s only so much Durant can do. Summoning a performance like this whets the appetite for more.
It’s unfair to expect this consistent dominance every day, but the focus should be the norm. And it’s cute to do this in January, but the lulls seem more likely to occur and prominent in May and June.
It’s like the Nets remember who they can be for stretches before developing long-term amnesia. But in those moments, they can run away, hide and peek out with a wink and a grin against the NBA’s best.
Harden compromising defenses with the handle, opposing players magnetized to the paint before finding the game’s most deadly scorer wide open for a triple. Or putting so much pressure on the opposition that simple swings of the ball lead to wide-open shots for players who barely need a sliver of daylight.
Their defense doesn’t have to be of shutdown variety to be effective, but they’ll have you seeing ghosts.
Just like the threat of Steph Curry pulling from 30 feet makes the most disciplined types jump and flail out of character, knowing you have to keep up with the explosive Nets can take you away from running patient offense, rushing shots and the like.
Before you know it, a tightly contested game turns into a 20-point spread on the road. But playoff series aren’t won that way, usually.
Then again, there’s nothing about this season that screams out “usual.”