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Kyrie Irving suffers facial contusion as Nets defeat Bulls, 115-107

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Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It was a big win that came with worrisome news.

The Nets carried over their energy from Saturday’s win against Denver, defeating the Bulls, 115-107. With the win, Brooklyn improves to 45-24 on the season, retaining their one game lead over the surging Bucks for the second seed in the East with three games remaining. The Nets are two games behind the first place 76ers. Both the Sixers and Bucks hold the tiebreaker over Brooklyn.

Although the Nets looked scary throughout the first three-quarters of play, Chicago made it a game late.

But the big story was Kyrie Irving who suffered what was described as a “facial contusion” in the third quarter. Irving caught a hard elbow to his face from Nikola Vucevic, who was fighting for an offensive rebound. After lying on the baseline for a few minutes, his jersey pulled over his face, the Nets guard was assisted by the medical staff and walked to the locker room and was ruled out for the remainder of the contest.

He finished with 13 points — shooting 4-of-10 from the field and 3-of-5 from deep — to go with five assists and three rebounds in 21 minutes of play.

“No signs of a concussion. He had an x-ray, which was inconclusive so we’re really just going to look again in the morning,” said Steve Nash on Irving. “[He’ll] have a scan and all that when we get home. We’ll take it from there.”

When Nash was asked whether he knows or has an idea of how much time Irving could miss, the Nets head coach repeated the positive news about the lack of concussion symptoms.

“The good news is that there’s no concussion symptoms. We’ll have to reevaluate him when we get the second scan,” Nash added.

At the time of the injury in the third quarter, Durant believed Irving was going to be alright. He said that his superstar teammate caught a “nice elbow to the face.” He said he’s hoping for good news in the morning.

“I thought he’d be alright. He mixes it up a lot with the big fellas, so he might catch an elbow here and there,” said Durant on Irving’s injury. “Kyrie plays with such toughness and competitiveness. I knew he would get up but I knew he took a nice elbow to the face. Hopefully, he’ll get checked out tomorrow, see if everything is alright, and move forward.”

The injury seemed to take the wind out of the Nets for a few minutes after he left the court. Brooklyn entered the final 12 minutes of play nursing a 93-74 lead but the Bulls came charging late to make a push to steal a win. Chicago forged a 15-5 run entering the final two minutes of play to cut the deficit to eight points.

With 35.4 seconds remaining, Zach LaVine — who scored a game-high 41 points,— drove down the lane and his layup attempt was swatted by Nicolas Claxton. The Bulls won their coach's challenge on the play and intentionally fouled Kevin Durant — who had a balanced outing of 21 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three blocks — hit two free throws to extend the lead to 10.

Chicago answered with a 28-foot three from Coby White and after two free throws from Mike James. White hit another three to cut it to seven with 5.8 seconds but James iced the game with another pair of free throws.

Brooklyn had eight of their nine active players finish in double-figures while dishing 32 assists on 42 made shots in the victory. In addition to the five starters, Claxton, James and Bruce Brown also put up double figures.

“He’s just a winner. He plays so hard and outstanding defensively, rebounds the ball,” said Nash on Brown’s performance. “When he’s able to fill in the gaps and take that soft space on the court where other teams are focusing on other guys, he really makes it difficult to defend us,”

Claxton registered his first double-double with 10 points and 10 boards in 23 minutes to go with two blocks and most importantly, lock-down defense on Nets nemesis Nikola Vucevic. Vooch, who had averaged 26.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in four previous games vs. Brooklyn this season, finished with 12 points (on 5-of-18 shooting) and 12 rebounds.

“He’s a talented player and hard worker that can score from all different parts of the floor. I feel like he missed a couple of today that he normally makes, but I feel like we pushed him off his spot a little bit on the box,” said Durant on the defense against Vucevic.

“Instead of one dribble to his hook, he might have taken three or four dribbles, which can tire out a big. We were digging and coming over to contest his shots with a second guy. That shows how much respect we have for him as a player when we got so much emphasis on his post up and movement.”

Chicago fell to 29-41 on the year, inching closer to be eliminated from play-in tournament contention.

“I’m really a fan of this team,” said KD of the Bulls. “Obviously, being coached by Billy [Donovan], his staff and I know exactly how those guys approach every day as a unit. They have a lot of talent and a lot of different guys that can do a variety of things,” said Durant on the Bulls.

The win was an end-to-end affair. Brooklyn came out of the gates right where they left off in Denver, hitting four threes and making seven of their first eight shots to take an early 18-7 advantage with 7:56 remaining. One of Brooklyn’s threes was Harris’ 800th as a Net, leaving only him 13 short of Jason Kidd’s franchise record.

“The ball was going in which is always nice, but I thought our pace and intention were there. We tried to move it and make quick decisions and was very clearly difficult to guard,” said Nash on the hot start. “The ball doesn’t always go in but the opportunities were there to convert goo looks. I was really proud of the way they moved it overall and obviously, 32 assists and seven turnovers are outstanding.”

Brooklyn’s offense simmered down a bit following their hot start, ending the frame shooting 12-of-22 from the field and 6-of-10 from deep. Beyond their shooting, the ball movement was flowing, dishing an assist (12) on all of their made shots.

Irving, who was the only Net to play the entirety of the first, led Brooklyn — scoring 11 of their 32 points — giving them a nine-point lead. The team was 10-4 on the road when leading after the first frame.

The high energy and activity carried over to the second, but their extra work was the biggest takeaway. Brooklyn played with high intensity and focused on the small details from diving for loose balls to putting pressure on the glass.

While the Nets were putting emphasis on the small details, their ball movement was special — dishing 20 assists on their 24 made shots at the break — and having three players in double-figures. To make things even sweeter, Brooklyn had only two turnovers in the first half while Chicago had five, translating to eight points for the gritty Nets.

Brown had himself a first half playing with a mask to protect his broken nose. He led the team in scoring with 15 points (third-highest of his career) on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 1-of-2 from behind the arc. The masked Brown snagged a team-high seven boards and dished three assists to go with his scoring production.

In the third, Brooklyn outscored Chicago 29-23 in the frame, shooting 28-of-68 from the field and 12-of-30 from behind the arc. The Nets executed on the offensive end through their defensive play into early offense and transition buckets to head into the final 12 minutes of play nursing a 93-74 lead.

Now, the question is how much time will Irving miss.

The Film Room

Brooklyn kickstarted things the right way with perhaps... what... the best first-half since LaMarcus Aldridge’s debut against the Charlotte Hornets? Maybe 6 days later on April 7th against the Pelicans when Kevin Durant finally returned from his hamstring injury?

Regardless, the Nets came out firing — but more importantly — passing, recording assists on all but 4 of their makes in the first half.

From the first play of the game, the Nets were in their collective bags offensively. Below, KD dishes to Griffin, fakes the dribble handoff, only to flow into a pindown screen for Joe Harris. Because Patrick Williams is trailing behind the play after the fake dribble-handoff, he is not really in position to switch with Coby White on the pindown screen (plus: giving the Nets a Coby White-Kevin Durant matchup is basically defensive suicide for the Bulls). With White fighting around Durant’s screen, that’s all the room Joe Harris needs to launch a one-dribble three-pointer.

This ATO is just improvisational wizardry; Kevin Durant fakes as if he’s sprinting up toward Blake Griffin for a dribble-handoff before noticing that Garrett Temple is overplaying him for the handoff, so he responds by cutting backdoor. This pulls in the help defense of Lauri Markkanen, and that’s blood in the water for Brooklyn’s resident shark, Bruce Brown, who slot cuts to receive the nifty dime from KD.

For you film buffs, this next play was one to get excited about: Some 7/11 double drag (a set that features two transition screens facing the sideline, in which one screener rolls the basketball while the other pops to the arc) PLUS an added caveat. Instead of Kyrie Irving handling the ball like normal with Durant screening (and popping), their roles are reversed! Kevin Durant is the one handling while Kyrie pops, putting the defense into unfamiliar positions.

Because of the uniqueness of this set, the Bulls appear to screw up their coverage; Garrett Temple ends up well out of the play while Patrick Williams should’ve probably switched to help him out, and Kyrie Irving takes advantage by pressuring the cup. This pulls in the help defense from Thaddeus Young, Coby White (for some reason) leaves Bruce Brown to tag a well-covered Nicolas Claxton (the Bulls are seriously SO bad on defense), and Brown once more takes advantage of being left alone by the defense.

When the Nets are moving the ball like THIS and adding this much detail to their sets, they’re dang near impossible to stop.

James Harden back Wednesday?

It’s looking like James Harden will return Wednesday night vs. the Spurs. Steve Nash has been saying the last few days that the Nets point guard has been scrimmaging and that the team was hopeful that Harden could play one or more of the Nets last few games.

Not longer after the game ended, Malika Andrews of ESPN tweeted this...

Is it possible that Kevin Durant could join Harden in the back half of back-to-back? Neither Nash nor KD would say No, deferring the decision till Wednesday. As for Irving, that seems doubtful at this point.

Final road record

Brooklyn finished the 2020-21 regular season road schedule with a 20-16 record (.556 win percentage), the second-highest road win percentage in a season in franchise history (23-18, .561 win percentage in the 2012-13 campaign).

The team now has an overall .662 winning percentage which if it holds will be the best ever for the franchise, besting the .634 the Nets achieved in the 2001-02 season. Also, if the Nets stay above .648 for the season, Steve Nash will become the winningest coach in franchise history. P.J. Carlesimo, who filled in after Avery Johnson was canned, is the current leader.

Mike James fate

Mike James played a solid game after Kyrie Irving went down, finishing with 10 points, eight assists and seven boards. Although he shot 1-of-7 overall, James hit all eight of his free throws.

Is it enough to get James a standard NBA deal? His second 10-day runs out after tonight and if the Nets want him around in the post-season, they’ll have to sign him to a standard deal or open one of the team’s two two-way slots currently held by Chris Chiozza and Reggie Perry.

James is expected return to CSKA Moscow next season.

Nets - Knicks first round?

Nothing is set yet, but after the Knicks loss to the Lakers in OT early this morning, the possibility of a Nets-Knicks first round series is becoming more and more likely. With the loss, the Knicks drop from fourth to sixth. Although the Hawks, Heat and Knicks have the same records, the Knicks fall behind the other two because of tiebreakers.

Whoever finishes sixth in the seedings will face the No. 3 seed and right now, the Nets are in second, but only one game back of the Bucks. If the Nets drop into third and the Knicks stay in sixth, the first round would be New York, New York, and the promise of the New Yorker cover would be fulfilled.

Any such series would start May 22 in Brooklyn. Watch this space!

What’s next

The Nets will be back in action Wednesday when the team hosts the San Antonio Spurs. The game is scheduled to tip at 8:00 PM ET and is the second leg of a back-to-back.

When Nash was asked whether a decision has been made on Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant — who both have rested for a majority of second legs this season — the Nets head coach didn’t close the door on playing them and neither did Durant, who commented on the case after his head coach.

“We’ll have to assess in the morning. There is a possibility that they’ll play tomorrow,” Nash said. “We’ll see how everyone comes out of this one and look like in the morning.”

“Well, it’s a possibility for sure,” Durant responded in a laughing manner. “We’ll see in the morning.”

The same follows with Griffin - “I feel great. I always want to play. I just let them make the decision, but I’ll always be ready.”

For a different perspective, check out Blog a Bull - our sister site covering the Chicago Bulls.