Nets win game of the year in Portland, 109-107
That’s better than anything I could do for an introduction. If Twitter is really down for the count, the Brooklyn Nets account is going out with a bang, posting deep-fried photos of a guy who came to training camp without a guaranteed contract. But nothing else, absolutely nothing else I could think of, comes close to describing feeling of the Nets’ 109-107 win Thursday night in Portland in the game of the year, so far.
And I don’t mean the game of the year in the winning sense. It was the best game the Nets have played this season, in terms of quality of play and entertainment factor. Portland came to play. They created advantages like we thought they would, with Brooklyn struggling to contain the big body of Jusuf Nurkic. Their wings wreaked havoc, with rookie Shaedon Sharpe scoring a career-high 20 points, Jerami Grant playing excellent defense on Kevin Durant (right down to the last possession), and Justise Winslow and Nassir Little leading Portland in plus-minus, no coincidence. They even opened an 11-point lead deep into the third quarter, after a see-saw contest up to that point.
It would have been understandable (if not easy to deal with) if the Nets had laid down and died at that point. It was, after all, an infamous last game on a West Coast road trip. Brooklyn faced a team with a 10-4 record, tops in the Western Conference. The Nets had played so well in the first half, with so many positives, and are potentially looking forward to Kyrie Irving’s return in the next game. All that would have been enough to leave the Moda center with his head held high.
Instead, they ended the third quarter with a 14-0 lead. Suddenly the game became a must-win of sorts; the possibility of such a life-injecting victory was now firmly in their grasp, and letting it slip through would have hurt worse than settling into the night. Brooklyn was able to capitalize on that opportunity.
How did they do it?
There are a few performances that are responsible for this victory. Some were collective, like the help defense, consistent offensive pace and commitment to rebounding. But I would like to highlight a few individuals. I’d be hard-pressed not to mention Yuta Watanabe first, who went 5-of-7 from deep, and they weren’t all pressure-free practice shots either…
Watch closely: he catches it on the fly, in semi-transition, hesitates, re-sets his feet and drills the triple with a finish coming. There certainly is one added value shot. But it wasn’t just the shooting (or cutting to the basket, which was largely responsible for his six free throw attempts).
On defense, Watanabe consistently made life easier for his teammates in help while also grabbing contested rebounds. He checked into the game and got the Damian Lillard assignment immediately. Yuta is here to stay, folks, and here to rock.
The other individual performance I want to mention was Ben Simmons. This was the first time he was consistently positive on the pitch. He didn’t just have positive flashes, or moments to build on. He was very good.
Offensively, he attacked the rim fairly consistently, though his finishes are still finesse, not power. But he and Joe Harris showed the kind of half-court chemistry you’d hope for right when Simmons netted. The kind of chemistry he had with a JJ Redick in Philly.
He also played a big hand in getting Brooklyn to increase its tempo and get into early offense, an offense that experienced much more success than their half-court counterpart. It wasn’t always easy, and Ben is still used to picking the ball up way too early, but forward passes like the one below consistently resulted in the smooth offensive flow the Nets need:
Simmons was also active and engaged on defense, making timely rotations with the deflections we became accustomed to seeing from him during his All-Star years. The kind of defense that, combined with other great athletes in Watanabe, Claxton and Durant, gives Brooklyn an energy that not every team can match. That’s why the Toronto Raptors are great to play, night in and night out. It’s hard to deal with a bunch of 6’10” guys who turn the tables and attack the offensive player. Aggressiveness doesn’t have to be a one-way street.
“For me, I love those moments,” Simmons said of the Blazers’ failed attempt at the Hack-a-Ben. “I’m not going to back down. That was their plan. It obviously didn’t work. It builds. I like those moments.”
And finally, Royce O’Neale turned in his first career triple-double. I wrote, in this game’s preview, that Portland’s tendency to give up a lot of shots at the rim and corner threes should lead to more pick-and-rolls or dribble handoffs for Brooklyn, versus the many Durant post-ups we’ve seen recently. And while Durant got quite active in the pick-and-roll, the real star of the game, in that regard, was Royce O’Neale:
Many of his 11 assists were of high value, not just the swing-swing type of advantage that had already been created. And that’s before he mentions his game-winning tip-in, which saved Brooklyn from an overtime they were desperately trying to avoid:
What a win. It’s the kind of win that inspires faith in what this season can be, despite a start that’s been buried under 50 feet of poo. Nothing about this game was a fluke. Damian Lillard’s 24 shots were absolutely all necessary for his 25 points; he didn’t miss any open ones. Portland shot just two percent worse from deep. They certainly got the advantage of the whistle at times, shooting five more freebies than Brooklyn.
Seth Curry gave the Nets solid minutes but couldn’t hit a shot, and Cam Thomas played seven brutal minutes. Kevin Durant, for all his mind-altering brilliance—35 points—had a disastrous final 200 seconds that almost cost Brooklyn a win. Things happen. It’s beyond a relief to see Brooklyn push through everything and come out victorious on the other side.
“Undoubtedly [this was huge]. We didn’t do everything perfectly at the end of the game, so for us to still be together, not panic and come through on the other side – that’s huge. A group grows that way, Jacque Vaughn said after the win. “I’m still excited. … If a coach could make a game and end up winning at the end, that was it.”
Thursday night actually had every opportunity for a momentum-building win. They did the hard part; now it’s up to the Nets to just take advantage of it.
Chauncey Billups on Nets: There’s always something
Before the game, Trailblazers coach Chauncey Billups remarked how there’s always something going on in Brooklyn … and he didn’t mean basketball.
When asked if he has seen a team with as much drama as the Nets: “No, other than the last time we played. It was different issues, different people. It’s always just something. It’s just hard to get started in a situation like that. I never played with that kind of dysfunction.”
He added, “They’re going through a lot… It seems like they’re always going through a lot.”
If his comments were some kind of psyche, it didn’t work.
As mentioned, Royce O’Neale’s triple double was the first of his career.
Kevin Durant added two more milestones: he became the 19th player all-time to score 26,000 points. And with his 35 points, KD has now recorded 25 or more points in 16 games to start the season, tying Michael Jordan’s best start in 1988-89. If he can do it again Sunday, he will be the first NBA player to hit 17 straight in 56 years, when Rick Barry had 25 straight. The NBA record is a long way off. Wilt Chamberlain had 80 in his magical 1961-62 season.
Ben Simmons’ double-double was his first since June 21, 2021.
Kyrie Irving Watch
All indications are that this game will be the last of Kyrie Irving’s indefin
Another explosive point guard that Brooklyn is probably already tired of: Yes Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies are coming to Brooklyn on Sunday night. Tip-off is at 7:00 PM ET.
For yet another perspective, head over to Blazers Edge, our SB Nation sister site.