The Brooklyn Nets, without Kevin Durant, beat a healthy Golden State Warriors. After losing four straight since Durant fell to an MCL sprain, the Nets have rallied with back-to-back road wins against the Utah Jazz and the Warriors. Even without one of its headlining stars, the highly awaited matchup was still worth seeing.
Let’s be honest. With how the Nets played during their four-game skid, you would have expected a predatory display from the Warriors. Instead, the Nets held on, kept the gap close, and in the dying minutes, flipped the barrel on the defending champions. The Nets’ full-team effort earned them a 120-116 win.
“Prayer,” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith answered when asked how the Nets can avoid falling off a cliff without Kevin Durant. “A lot of it,” Smith added. Plenty, if not most, fans and media members were quick to sound off the Nets after knowing the duration of Durant’s absence. In all fairness, the two-seed drop they experienced since supports such claims. However, games like the win against the Warriors serve as a reminder of the Nets’ capabilities even without Durant.
The Nets are continuously criticized when they underperform. And while the criticism is warranted, it is only fair to give them their flowers after a noteworthy performance. Some of the key players left giant handprints on this victory. And while we can’t ignore the elephants in the locker room, we can still smell the metaphorical roses.
Nic Claxton: hustle over muscle
Smith described Nic Claxton as “a tall man, not a big man.” The 23-year-old has seen a lot of improvement this season. But as the lone center for the Nets, he has also been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. The most common one is his lack of size. Last season, the Nets had LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Drummond commanding the paint, leaving Claxton behind more traditional big men. Though Claxton’s promotion this season happened by default, he is proving himself worthy of his new responsibilities.
Claxton leads the NBA in field goal percentage with 73.3 and blocks per game with 2.7. Claxton had 15 rebounds and a season-high 24 points against the Warriors. He also tallied three blocks, setting a franchise record for 12 consecutive games with at least three swats. Slender as he is, Claxton’s presence is big for the Nets. And at his age, the future looks promising for him.
Ben Simmons: the passing and defensive specialist
Out of all the players in Brooklyn, Ben Simmons has the biggest target on his back. And to say he did it to himself is not wrong. His decline from becoming the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Rookie of the Year, and three-time All-Star, to becoming the short straw in the trade with James Harden is storybook-worthy. But the few times this season when he showed flashes of his past self, gives fans a glimmer of hope for a fairytale ending.
When a player fouls almost more than he attempts a shot, optimism becomes a tough task. But despite his unhealthy fear of the basket, Simmons has a healthy habit of creating opportunities for his teammates. With his vision and passing ability, Simmons averages 6.4 assists per game this season. He ranks second in assist ratio behind Golden State’s Draymond Green. Simmons also averages 6.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
At some point, we have to throw in the towel on his inability and phobia of shooting, but we can appreciate him for playing to his strengths. He still has what it takes to be an elite defender. He can get fans onboard to support him, but he has to be onboard himself first.
Kyrie Irving: an elite closer
You can talk about controversy, lack of leadership, or believing the planet is flat all day. But anybody in the right mind knows that Kyrie Irving can ball. We know how lethal he is, especially in clutch situations. Without Durant, people looked at Irving with one eyebrow raised. But except for a 15-point showing in a loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Irving has performed well without the Batman to his Robin. Irving is averaging 26.7 points per game this season. But in the past five games without Durant, he averaged 31, including a 48-point game against Utah and 38 points against Golden State in back-to-back wins.
The scoring is no surprise, nor are the ankle-busting handles. But the icing on the cake was how well Irving defended Stephen Curry, especially in the clutch when Curry tends to be the deadliest. Irving spearheaded as the Nets kidnapped Curry and the Warriors were unable to pay the ransom. NBA Twitter exploded about how much Irving outplayed Curry and will always be better head-to-head. Irving was the catalyst for the win in more ways than two. He was responsible for getting the ball to Royce O’Neale who shot the lead-getting bucket with 27.1 left in the game.
If Jacque Vaughn’s squad is to stay afloat without KD, they need Kyrie to be great, and looking at the past two games, he has delivered.