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Nets win game of the year in Portland, 109-107

Brooklyn Nets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

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 images of a guy who came into training camp without a guaranteed contract. But nothing else, certainly nothing else I could come up with, comes close to describing the feeling of the Nets’ 109-107, Thursday night win in Portland in the game of the year, thus far.

And I don't mean game-of-the-year in a victorious sense. That was the best game the Nets have played this season, factoring in quality of play and entertainment factor. Portland came to play. They created advantages the way we thought they would, with Brooklyn struggling to contain the big body of Jusuf Nurkic. Their trove of wings created all sorts of 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, through no coincidence. They even opened up an 11-point lead deep in the third quarter, after a see-saw contest up to that point.

It would have been understandable (if not easy to handle) if the Nets had laid down and died at that point. It was, after all, a vaunted final game of a West Coast road trip. Brooklyn was facing 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 their next game. All that would have been enough to leave the Moda Center with their heads held high.

Instead, they ended the third quarter with a lead after a 14-0 run. Suddenly, the game became a must-win of sorts; the opportunity for such a life-injecting win was now firmly in their grasp, and letting it slip through would have hurt worse than quietly fading into the night. Brooklyn managed to take advantage of that opportunity.

How’d they do it?

There are a few performances that are responsible for this win. Some were collective, like the help defense, consistent offensive pace, and commitment to rebounding. But I’d like to highlight some individuals. I’d be hard-pressed to not 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 that on the run, in semi-transition, hesitates, re-sets his feet, and drills the triple with a closeout coming. That is most certainly an 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 was consistently making the lives of his teammates easier in help, while also snatching contested rebounds. He checked into the game and got the Damian Lillard assignment immediately. Yuta is here to stay, folks, and here to ball.

The second individual performance I want to mention was that of Ben Simmons. This was the first time he was a through-and-through positive on the court. He didn’t just have positive flashes, or moments to build on. He was very good.

Offensively, he attacked the rim fairly consistently, although his finishes are still all finesse, not power. But he and Joe Harris showed type of chemistry in the half-court that you hoped for right when Simmons became a Net. The type of chemistry he had with one J.J. Redick in Philly.

He also played a big hand in getting Brooklyn to push the pace and get into early offense, an offense which experienced much more success than their half-court counterpart. It wasn’t always this easy, and Ben is still wont to pick the ball up way too early, but kick-ahead passes like the below, were consistently resulting in the smooth offensive flow the Nets need:

Simmons was also active and engaged on defense, making timely rotations with the deflections we grew accustomed to seeing from him during his All-Star years. The type of defense that, combined with fellow large athletes in Watanabe, Claxton, and Durant, give Brooklyn an energy that not every team can match. It’s why the Toronto Raptors are hellacious to play, night in and night out. It’s hard to deal with a bunch of rangy 6’10” guys turning the tables around and attacking the offensive player. Aggressiveness doesn’t have to be a one-way street.

“For me, I love those moments,” Simmons said about the Blazers failed attempt at Hack-a-Ben. “I’m not going to shy away. That was their plan. Obviously, it didn’t work. It’s building. I like those moments.”

“Incredible. I’m just happy for him because he’s been trying to get his form back, trying to figure his rhythm out,” said Kevin Durant. “Tonight I think he did a good job just talking up, commanding the offense, commanding the team on the defensive side of the ball. He was incredible.”

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 many shots at the rim and corner threes should lead to more pick-and-roll or dribble handoffs for Brooklyn, vs. the many Durant post-ups we’ve seen recently. And while Durant did get fairly active in 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 merely the swing-swing type off of advantages that had already been created. And that’s before mentioning his game-winning tip-in, which saved Brooklyn from an overtime that they were desperately trying to avoid:

What a win. It’s the type of win that stirs up belief in what this season could become, despite a start that’s been buried under 50 feet of poop. Nothing about this game was a fluke. Damian Lillard’s 24 shots were absolutely all necessary for his 25 points; he wasn't missing any open ones. Portland shot just two percent worse from deep. They certainly, at times, got the benefit of the whistle, 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 poins, had a disastrous final 200 seconds that nearly cost Brooklyn a win. Stuff happens. It is beyond a relief to see Brooklyn push through all of it all of it and come out the other side victorious.

“Without a doubt [this was huge]. We didn’t do everything perfect at the end of the game, and so for us to still stay together, didn’t 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 draw up a game and ended up winning at the end, that was it.”

Indeed, Thursday night had all the makings of a momentum-building win. They did the hard part; now it’s on the Nets to just capitalize on it.

Chauncey Billups on Nets: It’s always somethin’

Before the game, Trailblazers coach Chauncey Billups remarked on how there is always something going on in Brooklyn ... and he didn’t mean basketball.

Asked if he’s seen a team with as much drama as the Nets: “No, other than last time we played. It was different issues, different people. It’s always just something. Its just tough to get going in a situation like. I never played with that type 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 sort of psych, it didn’t work.

Milestone Watch

As noted, 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 away. Wilt Chamberlain had 80 in his his magical 1961-62 season.

Ben Simmons double-double was his first in regular season since March 17, 2021.

And get this series of NBA leaders:

—Most points: Kevin Durant - 490

—Most minutes: Kevin Durant - 588

—Most free throws made: Kevin Durant - 137

—Best overall shooting percentage: Nic Claxton - 71.2%

—Best 2-point shooting percentage: Nic Claxton - 71.8%

—Best effective shooting percentage: Nic Claxton - 71.2%

—Best 3-point shooting percentage: Yuta Watanabe: 55.6%

—Best free throw percentage: Edmond Sumner: 96.8%

Kyrie Irving Watch

There is every indication that this game will be the last of Kyrie Irving’s indefinite suspension which turned out to be last eight games (at a loss of roughly $3.5 million.) With Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania reporting it — and no one of the Nets trying to tamp down expectations — things seem set for him to be in uniform Sunday vs. the Grizzlies at Barclays Center.

“I think there’s been some positive synergy and progress towards him returning,” Jacque Vaughn said prior to the game. “It could be as soon as the Memphis game.”

“Just really excited,” Royce O’Neal said. “Just to get everybody back and keep building on what we have going on . . . I mean, just look at the type of player he is. An All-Star-caliber player.”

Irving was suspended by the Nets for a minimum of five games on November 3, a week after he promoted an antisemitic video on Twitter and Instagram. Under terms of the suspension, Irving was supposed to meet six requirements before he could return to court. Shams Charania and Adrian Wojnarowski report that the reinstatement “process” was nearing an end, with Shams reporting Irving had taken “ownership” of said process in recent days.

Meanwhile, Sopan Deb of the New York Times interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League about one of the prerequisites, that Irving meet with Jewish leaders. Greenblatt said he had provided the Nets with names of local leaders but did not know if Irving has met with any of them.

Greenblatt added that he did not have input in the prerequisites, including a proposal that Irving donate $500,000 to combat hate. He also said that Irving’s outsized influence in the larger community — and Brooklyn — made the controversy so much bigger, noting that his son wears Irving sneakers and has a Kyrie jersey.

“Kyrie Irving plays in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has one of the largest Jewish populations. It has the largest Jewish population of any of the boroughs in New York,” Greenblatt told Deb.

“When he mainstreamed that film that is so hurtful, and he plays for a team where he’s got Jewish fans in the Barclays every single night, and Jewish kids like my own wearing his jerseys because he plays for Brooklyn, he’s right down the road. That’s part of what was so challenging here, too.”

Irving is averaging 26.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.6 threes, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks, with shooting splits of 45/28/93.

Next up

Yet another explosive point guard who Brooklyn is probably already sick of: Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies come to Brooklyn on Sunday night. Tip is at 7:00 p.m. ET.

Further another perspective, head on over to Blazers Edge, our SB Nation sister site.