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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant combine for 67 as Nets beat second-seed Suns, 128-119

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Phoenix Suns v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Durant was Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was Kyrie Irving ... and that’s all she wrote.

In a huge win for the Nets. Brooklyn turned up the heat in the fourth, defeating the Suns, 128-119, behind the stellar play of their “Big Two.” With the win, the Nets improve to 41-20 on the season and have won 12 of their last 13 home games. They’re now a game and a half ahead of the Sixers, who’ve lost four straight.

“I look at it as where we are today. Today, we performed. We could’ve been better defensively, but a lot of good stretches. We created separation with our defense and offensively, we were able to score it,” Steve Nash said. “Tonight was good. Lots to build on. Lots of positives but for me, it’s never this is where we are. It’s where we’re going. This is an indicator of what we can do well, where we can improve and continue to chip away and get better.”

Durant returned from his three-game injury absence and didn’t disappoint. KD, who came off the bench in his return for the third time in his career, scored 33 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the floor including 2-of-3 from behind the arc.

“You think big picture. I’d rather fall behind and have Kevin in the back pocket than go up and say ‘ok Kevin, you’re done’ in the third quarter. That’s kind of the give and take of it and he’s been on board with it,” Nash said on Durant coming off the bench. “Props to Kevin for being willing to try something like this that gives us a chance to be as flexible as we can be under this circumstance.

The Nets superstar tallied four assists and six rebounds in 28 minutes in the win. Durant didn’t play in the first frame.

“Kevin has shown his scoring doesn’t seem to get affected from a long layoff, whether it was coming off the Achillies, coming off the hamstring. It seems to come right back. His rhythm and timing are excellent. It’s very impressive, for sure,” Nash said on Durant’s performance.

When asked about minutes, Nash said he spoke to the performance team prior to the tip and they came to an agreement that 28 minutes of play were the plan.

“I finally talked to performance and we came up with 28 minutes,” Nash said on Durant’s minutes. “That’s what we stuck to.”

Kyrie Irving had another box office performance, rebounding from his below-average shooting performance against the Raptors. Irving finished with 34 points off a very efficient 10-of-18 from the field and 5-of-7 from deep. He didn’t miss from the line — again — making all nine he attempted.

“Pretty typical of those two,” Nash said on the Nets superstar duos performance. “Efficient and explosive scorers. I thought they did a good job playing off each other, keeping the thing moving and playing as a team. I thought there was a pretty good flow out there for the most part.”

While Brooklyn’s stars highlighted the win, there were more positives to go around, beginning with their bench. The Nets bench outscored the Suns' bench 63-33. Outside of Durant, who led the bench charge, Blake Griffin had a good game on both ends. Griffin scored 16 points to go with five rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes of play.

Brooklyn improved their NBA-best record against Western Conference competition to 20-6 with the win, the best winning percentage any Eastern Conference team has had since the Heat in 2012-13.

Phoenix was led by Devin Booker, who scored 36 points on 12-of-24 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 from deep. DeAndre Ayton followed, finishing with 20 points in 33 minutes but late game foul trouble ended his night early. But the Nets switching defense and physical game basically throttled Chris Paul who scored only 14 point on 11 shots, finishing a -8.

It was a hot start for Irving, who led the Nets' early offensive boost, scoring seven points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field, leaving Monty Williams and the Suns to call a timeout with 9:11 remaining with Brooklyn up 9-2. Brooklyn complemented their hot offense with solid defense, holding Phoenix making only five of their first 15 shots.

The Suns began to wake up after the timeout, forging a 14-9 run, and taking their first lead with 2:56 remaining as the Nets took their first timeout. Brooklyn concluded the first down 32-27.

Irving scored 16 of the Nets 27 first-quarter points while Booker manned the ship early for the Suns, scoring 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field. Phoenix targeted the paint, scoring 16 of their 32 points down low, outscoring Brooklyn 16-8 in that category.

Durant checked in for the Nets at the eight-minute mark of the second, along with Irving, and received a standing ovation from the Barclays Center crowd.

It didn’t take long for Durant to get on the scoreboard, hitting a nifty six-foot driving floater. Durant concluded the second with eight points on 4-of-8 shooting from the field. The Nets superstar logged eight minutes in the second frame.

Brooklyn began to gather some momentum late in the second, forging a quick 5-0 run off a Green hammer and an Irving three to cut the deficit to seven with 2:51 remaining. The Nets ended the second strongly, extending their run to 16-5, hitting the break down one point.

“I think a few reasons, we weren’t as sharp as we were later but we grew into it and figured out some of the defensive patterns we needed to get better at,” Nash said on the second-quarter run. “We got better as the game progressed but there were a few factors why we fell behind early.”

Irving, who sparked the Nets late in the second, hit the break with a game-high 24 points to go along with five assists on 6-of-7 shooting overall and went a perfect 3-of-3 from behind the arc. Other than Irving, Brooklyn didn’t shoot well from three, going 5-of-16 from deep in the first two frames.

On the other side, Phoenix shot 45.1 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from deep, led by Booker with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting from deep and Ayton with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting.

“More than anything, Ayton had seven or eight rebounds in the first half. That hurt us,” Nash said.

The Nets upped the pace to begin the second half. Both teams focused their attack inside the arc midway through the third frame, which included a Durant blow-by dunk. Nash called his first timeout of the second half with 5:53 remaining with the score knotted up at 78.

Brooklyn compiled an 8-4 run to take a six-point advantage heading into the final minute of the third, behind the play of Durant, who scored nine points in the frame. The intensity rose in the final minute with some hard fouls, resulting in Booker and Griffin hitting the floor. Physicality was high. Phoenix cut their deficit to five heading into the final 12 minutes of play.

A big difference-maker in the frame was the transition defense. The Nets played tremendous transition defense, holding the Suns to zero fast-break points in the third. Brooklyn shot 57 percent from the field and 48 percent from deep heading into the fourth. Phoenix trailed Brooklyn in shooting percentage (48 percent from the field and 38 percent).

Brooklyn’s offense was looking scary to open the fourth, forging a 12-5 run, boosting a commanding 14-point lead for the Nets with 7:31 remaining. When the game appeared to be going the Nets way, the Suns inched back, cutting the deficit to 11 points off a 26-foot three from Booker, resulting in Nash calling a timeout with 5:43 remaining. Although having the firepower to erase a double-digit deficit, the Suns needed stops but couldn’t gather consistency.

The Nets, who entered the final minute of play nursing a nine-point lead, and closed out the contest with a nine-point win. Post-game, Durant was asked if the Suns, who have the NBA’s second best record — the Nets have the fourth — were a good “measuring stick’ for his team. “I think we were a measuring stick for them,” deadpanned Durant.

Film Room

Pick-and-roll defense played a big role in this game. While the offense *checks box score* took care of itself, Brooklyn came into the game with a very clear game plan. The Nets were going to switch every single screen at all costs to take away the midrange from Devin Booker and Chris Paul (two midrange monsters), even if that meant giving up the mismatch of Deandre Ayton posting up one of Brooklyn’s guards. Most Nets fans know — playing drop coverage (without switching the pick-and-roll) is NOT a vibe strategy against either one of Phoenix’s stars. See: The Overtime heartbreaker against CP3 and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2019-2020 season.

We saw the pitfalls of Brooklyn’s switch-everything strategy early on as Ayton dominated Brooklyn’s smalls after switches for 10 first-half points.

Those pitfalls were exacerbated when Brooklyn botched its switching coverage. Below, it appears Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin are not on the same page. Kevin Durant is playing more traditional man-to-man and fighting over the screen to stay with Chris Paul, whereas Blake Griffin appears to be working within a switching scheme... by also picking up Chris Paul. What this leads to is a very laughably wide-open Deandre Ayton and an eventual Cam Johnson dunk.

However, we saw the fruits of Brooklyn’s strategy in the second half as the Nets slowed the Suns’ offense to a crawl with timely switches. Chris Paul, in particular, was greatly limited by the sheer amount of size Brooklyn threw his way by limiting his airspace with an airtight switching scheme.

“CP loves to shoot when your bigs are in the drop off that pick-and-roll,” explained Kevin Durant postgame. “That quick offense, sometimes they get down 10-12 points, CP will come off the pick-and-roll and just pull up, and that’ll get them back in the game. I think we took some of that stuff away and made him dribble probably 5 or 6 more dribbles when he comes off the pick-and-roll, so the rhythm was off a little bit.”

A great example below. After a Chris Paul-Frank Kaminsky pick-and-roll, the Nets switch to put Blake Griffin against CP3 in isolation. Though CP dances with all his might, the possession itself has already stalled out and Blake Griffin does a nice job getting a hand up on the pull-up three.

Kevin Durant put it best after the game concluded: “We’d rather them try and shoot over the top of us to get easy baskets than in the pick-and-roll.”

Alize Johnson and Nicolas Claxton still in Health & Safety Protocols.

Nicolas Claxton missed his fourth straight game since being flagged because of the league’s health and safety protocols just after the Nets played in South Beach. Alize Johnson, meanwhile, was unavailable for the second consecutive game for the same reason. On Friday, Nash mentioned that the two health and safety placements were linked to the same incident in Miami, though he didn’t expand much beyond that.

Prior to tip-off, Nash provided a slight update... if you want to call it that.

“I think that is outside of my paygrade,” said Nash about Johnson and Claxton’s return date. “They’re both in protocol.”

Well then.

Steve Nash still leaning towards not playing Kevin Durant in back-to-backs

The regular season is dwindling down and the Nets have a total of 12 games remaining. Out of those 12 games, there are three back-to-back scheduled.

When asked about whether Kevin Durant, who returned Sunday from his three-game injury absence from a left thigh contusion, can play in the three back-to-backs, the Nets head coach is leaning away from playing his superstar in those cases. Steve Nash said those decisions will be made based on the teams' situation.

“I’m still in the camp of I wouldn’t want him to play back-to-backs,” Nash said. “I’m not saying that’s never going to happen, but if we can avoid it, he doesn’t play in back-to-back games. Those are all decisions we’ll have to make as we monitor our situation.”

With the Nets being shorthanded, dealing with various injuries with different timetables, Blake Griffin, who the Nets have been cautious with, played in his first back-to-back (April 20 - 21).

For Durant, Nash said he will likely not let Durant exceed 30+ minutes over the next two to three games. The main plan for him is to get his legs under him while not overexposing him.

“There’s a fine line to be had between him getting his legs back and having the requisite demand and load so he can adapt to the demands, and at the same time not overexpose him,” Nash said. “So there’s a process still to be had with him.”

Players get the Nets advantage

In a frustrated string of comments after a tough home loss to Memphis, Damian Lillard remarked on how his Blazers have a narrow window to win, unlike their counterparts in Brooklyn...

Portland is now in seventh in the West, making it likely they will wind up in the play-in tournament next month.

As Sponge Bog might say...

Per Will Hanley.

What’s next

The Nets will return to action on Tuesday when the team returns to Tampa to face the Toronto Raptors. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.

For a different perspective on Sunday’s _, check out Bright Side Of The Sun - our sister site covering the Phoenix Suns.