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Nets, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, beat Knicks again, 122-115

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Detroit Pistons v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Death, taxes, the Nets owning the Knicks in the Clean Sweep era. We entered Saturday evening with the Nets record vs. their Manhattan counterpart at 13-3 since the start of the 2018 season, including eight in a row.

And Brooklyn did not disappoint. Never do when up against New York. Final score: Brooklyn Nets 122, New York Knicks 115. No Kevin Durant, no Ben Simmons, no T.J. Warren, and no problem. All they needed they got from Kyrie Irving.

It started early with Brooklyn taking a 62-49 lead into half-time after leading by as many as 18 points. And, although there was certainly an element of hot shooting from Brooklyn (11-21 from deep), their 13-point lead was an accurate reflection of each team’s process. Despite just posting three points in transition, courtesy of a Yuta Watanabe bomb, Brooklyn’s pace was excellent. Their half-court offense featured a ton of dribble-handoffs and guard-to-guard screens that kept the ball swinging from side-to-side, forcing the Knicks to execute their game-plan on every possession. On most of those possessions, they didn’t.

Jacque Vaughn credited simplicity above all else for Brooklyn’s offensive output: “ I just think overall we kept things really simple, that showed with the eight turnovers. 31 assists, eight turnovers, so our ability to share the basketball, play with pace, also spray that thing, drive-and-kick with space. Pretty good to see.”

Kyrie Irving got around double teams and traps, the Knicks responsible for chasing Patty Mills, Joe Harris & co. off screens didn’t stick to them, the switches they did try to perform were sloppy.

The NBA’s foremost dribbling maestro summed it up succinctly: “Yeah, the team atmosphere when everyone’s collectively firing it’s a beautiful game to watch. And it’s a beautiful game to be a part of.”

On the other end, Brooklyn opted out of a common defense strategy against the Knickerbockers, Julius Randle in particular. Rather than load up against the ball and show early help, they were content to let him work 1-on-1 with minimal distractions, except at the rim, where Nic Claxton was waiting. It worked, for the most part. Royce O’Neale gave Randle everything he could handle.

“I pretty much was guarding my man and also guarding [Randle] at the same time...Royce did a really good job guarding him too,” said Claxton.

His head coach agreed: “Royce started on him, really keeping his body in front of him, didn’t foul him early on. All his looks were contested. So that piece of it, and then having Nic been able to roam a little bit and give Royce some comfort if Julius was able to drive.”

All in all, Randle ended up with 19 points on 16 shots, very few of which were easy to come by.

But more important than his individual numbers, New York fell into the trap. Seemingly every possession was a grinding, ten-second isolation from the mid-post. When Brooklyn would switch Nic Claxton onto Jalen Brunson on the perimeter, as they often did in the first half, a similar situation unfolded. While it was fan to watch the two crafty lefties of different sizes go at it, and while Brunson did get some tough shots to go, the Knicks offense was far from ‘humming’. It was simple offense, sure, but far from the type of simplicity coach Vaughn praised in his own team after the game.

That part did not change as the game got into its later stages; it wouldn’t be true to say the Nets stopped executing their game plan. The difference between the first half and third quarter, which the Knicks would win 32-26, was the bench mob that kept the ship steady in their first stint couldn’t quite replicate that level of success.

Day’Ron Sharpe was respectable enough, but made one too many mistakes without producing any of the real added-value plays that he made in the first half (which included three tip-in layups!) And this part wasn’t exactly his fault, but the offense the second unit ran, featuring Sharpe screening and running handoffs around the high post, wasn’t as successful. Edmond Sumner, for example, had two turnovers in the third. Patty Mills did not make an appearance in the second half, despite hitting some tough jumpers in the first and scoring seven points when they were needed.

The close to the third quarter was not a total disaster, though, far from it: Brooklyn took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter, where their rotation decisions paid dividends: Irving and Claxton were out there to play the entirety of the final frame. As was Joe Harris, whose fourth three of the night brought the Nets’ lead from five, the tiniest it had been since the first quarter, to eight. That’s what Joe Harris did often, his first vintage performance in a while. When Brooklyn’s chest felt a little constricted, he hit a three - whether off movement, off a swing pass, in transition - to provide a deep exhale.

Then, it was Kyrie Irving time. With Mariano Rivera in the house and Enter Sandman blasting as he was introduced on the video board to raucous applause, it was only right one of the NBA’s premier closers got going. A catch-and-shoot triple (off a nice Joe Harris baseline drive-and-kick), a fadeaway for two, an assist for a Seth Curry three. Then a step-back three of his own to push the lead to 14. A dagger, perhaps? Not quite. It was certainly Kyrie Irving time, but it wasn’t a total, transcendent takeover quite yet. Just one too many threes of his rimmed in and out for the contest to be put away so easily.

“So I was just doing the little things just trying to pace it out to make some timely shots,” Kyrie said of his start to the fourth quarter, before admitting that there were “a few in-and-outs that I felt were supposed to go down, but they didn’t.”

Thus, the Knicks had real momentum at various points down the stretch, peaking when a Quentin Grimes put-back dunk cut the lead to three. Hello, transcendent takeover time:

Eight points in less than a minute, including two self-created, highly contested threes - one out of a triple threat face-up, and the other a deep step-back. 21 fourth-quarter points in all for Irving, and just about all of them spectacular. All of a sudden, he had another 30-point game. This was Knicks-Nets after all, and Irving in the black-and-white simply doesn’t lose to these guys.

One Knicks fan on his way out gave me a strong suggestion: “Make sure you write that the Knicks suck!” I hate to disappoint, but while it’s true that the Knicks could have played a better game, this was a Nets win, through and through. Brooklyn’s best player firmly out-dueled New York’s best player on the back of a much more well-executed gameplan. Again, they shot 55% from deep on 40 attempts! (Of which Jacque Vaughn said “I wouldn’t mind having 10 more, I said in the huddle ‘let’s get 50 up’ long as they’re good ones.”)

It seemingly doesn’t matter what has to go right for the Nets in this matchup. Gaudy shooting numbers without Kevin F. Durant be damned. You can rest assured that it will go right, and that’s not an oft-spoken sentence about the Nets. Not unless they’re playing the Knicks.

On The Rivalry

Kyrie Irving had both the most cold and calculating answer to a question about the Knicks-Nets rivalry, as well as the most personal one. “If the NBA calls it Rivalry Week, then it’s a rivalry. So I’m cool with that,” Irving quipped. But he did also make one thing clear: “So, for me, I love beating the Knicks and playing against them.”

But as we know, Irving’s feelings about basketball in this part of the globe stem from personal ties, not merely professional ones, which he expanded on in great detail in an answer that some East-Coasters may feel a strong connection to:

So, to conclude:

“This is a different feeling for me because I grew up in New York, New Jersey,” said Irving. “So I’ve you know watched plenty of series being down in my den at my best friend’s house. Whether watching the game with my father or his father or watching the game and my father just admiring the guys playing at Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena.

“So for me, I love beating the Knicks and playing against them. But all in all, it’s just about the objective, which is winning the ball game.

“Nothing personal.”

For Jacque Vaughn’s part, he simply happy to be here when it comes his takeaways from the matchup, right on brand for him: “So I think overall, being able to to enjoy the competition. I think it’s pretty cool. I think you got a little bragging rights between the two teams and good competition.”

Nic Claxton said more of the same, though not before a long, wry smile when it was pointed out that the Nets haven’t lost to the Knicks in over three calendar years: “You felt the energy in there today. We were here at Barclays and they had a lot of fans and it was definitely a good atmosphere,” before making sure to add “I’ve never lost to the Knicks since I’ve been in the league.” He hasn’t! (Unless you unfairly want to count the days he spent in Long Island when the big-league squad did lose.)

Film Room

How did Brooklyn get 40 threes up? Well, in large part because the Knicks, as Tom Thibodeau-led teams do, were allll up in the gaps to help, leaving shooters wide open:

Here’s just one example, this time with no help from Claxton behind him, of the way Royce O’Neale took the challenge of Julius Randle tonight (who, yes, has been great of late) and exceeded expectations:

Oh, and “Rockstar Rolls” (O’Neale claimed that as his superhero name on the video board during a time-out) shot 4-7 from deep. One of his best games as a Net, he was nails on Saturday night.

Yuta...the...SHOOTA! No, it’s not that nerdy to put clips of a guy making threes on back-to-back possessions in the “Film Room” section - anybody can tell you that’s good basketball. But it’s just that Yuta has become reliable from the corners, it’s that he’s become a legit all-around shooting threat that must be accounted for at all times. He’s shooting in dynamic situations, like in transition and off relocations:

We’’ll end with a microcosm of Brooklyn’s offensive success, a beautiful possession featuring the ball getting to both sides of the floor, extra passes, and driving closeouts:

Simply outstanding stuff.

Milestone Watch

  • Kyrie Irving became the fourth player since 1996 (the first season were quarter-by-quarter stats were tracked) to record four 20-point fourth quarters in a season. There are 33 games left. This season, no other NBA player has more than one 20-point fourth quarter.
  • The nine-game win streak against the Knicks is Brooklyn’s longest active win streak vs. any opponent, but somehow just the second-longest for the Nets against the Knicks all-time. They posted 11 straight wins from 1984-86.
  • The Nets’ all-time head-to-head regular season record against the Knicks now sits at 107-101.
  • Brooklyn’s 22 three-pointers are the most they’ve made in a game this season.

Woj reiterates Nets want back-up big

Adrian Wojnarowski, speaking pre-game, reiterated that the Nets want to bolster their frontcourt rotation between now and the trade deadline.

“Along their front line, you look at what Nicolas Claxton has done this year — borderline All-Star — who had his best week as an NBA player last week,” Woj told Mike Greenberg on NBA Countdown. “But you see when he is off the floor, how vulnerable the Nets are on that front line. So they’ll be looking for some athleticism, some size in the front court between now and the trade deadline.”

No names at least yet, but reading the tea leaves, it would appear that the Nets are looking more along the lines of a young athletic big rather than an aging veteran. The deadline is 12 days away.

Similarly, John Hollinger of The Athletic told Alex Schiffer that he too believes the Nets need a big, but did not offer as much specificity as Woj.

“Setting aside concerns about Kyrie’s health and general mental state, and assuming for a moment that he and Durant are full strength in the postseason, I think the Nets need a physical big man to really jump to the A list of contenders,” said Hollinger.

As Sponge Bob might say...

Up Next

Another home game, this time against LeBron James and the Lakers on Monday, January 30. Tip-off will be at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Head to Posting and Toasting to read more about this one from New York’s perspective, where I’m sure they’re just thrilled.