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Nets pull away from star-less Lakers, win 121-104

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Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There must have been a strange mix of disappointment and relief among the Nets on Monday afternoon. Like a job interview getting rescheduled. The best players in the world want to play against the best players in the world; Nic Claxton, for example, could have further proven his ascension is no fluke by going up against Anthony Davis. Kyrie Irving surely cherishes every chance to compete against LeBron James.

Then on Monday, Brooklyn found out that they’d be facing a Lakers squad missing their two stars in LeBron and AD ... and without their own stars, Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons. That’s where the relief comes in, because boy, the version of the Lakers that the Nets beat 121-104, on Tuesday night hardly seemed very threatening.

The Nets came out of the gates like they were playing against a LeBron-led team, with vigor and purpose. Brooklyn’s offense, despite making threes at a slightly less ridiculous rate than the 55% they hit in their game vs. the Knicks, emphasized the same sort of side-to-side movement and screening that kept the ball popping. They got stops and ran in transition, getting out to a 29-16 lead at the end of the first quarter:

“We had appropriate fear tonight vs. this team,” said Jacque Vaughn. “We stayed with our goal of ‘win the basketball game’ and like I said, the starters got us off to a great start.”

That continued in the second quarter, where the Lakers simply could not keep up with Patty Mills’ mad dashes around screens and on handoffs. The Australian national team hero scored nine quick points in eight minutes, and opened up a bevy of other looks for teammates with his movement. Then, a prototypically awesome Yuta Watanabe sequence gave Brooklyn a 41-22 lead, and it appeared we were headed for a smooth nigh at the ‘Clays:

Even when Brooklyn scored just ten points over the final seven minutes of the second quarter, they still took a 58-46 lead into the locker room. Sure, it could have been at least a twenty-point margin, but a dozen felt like more than enough against a team with such little offense talent. After all, the Lakers had shot just 4-of-13 from deep over the first two quarters, including starting a fivesome that made just one of their seven attempts.

More than that, they just didn’t (and don’t) feel like the typical LeBron teams we’ve seen over the years that maintain a steady identity and capable shooting even when the soon-to-be-all-time-leading-scorer sits. Decisions like this let Brooklyn off the hook in the first half, even as the Nets lost any semblance of offensive rhythm:

Unfortunately, the Nets continued to play with their food, and it got cold. The Lakers opened up the third quarter on a 14-0 run to take a 60-58 lead, and we had a ball-game. Again, it was a mix of disappointment (maybe disgust) and relief that it was essentially a tie game for the first time since 0-0.

This time, Brooklyn couldn’t wrangle control of the contest so easily. Off misses, makes, and everything in between, Russell Westbrook and the Lakers pushed hard in transition where the Nets were slow to get back. “The majority of the offense tonight for the Lakers was in transition,” said Kyrie Irving.

Poor shooting crept up to average, and on the other end, Irving couldn’t quite ignite takeover time as he had against the Knicks. There was no offensive flow that he could insert himself into, no natural opportunities. Kyrie had a fine third quarter, shooting 3-of-6 and adding a couple of free throws. But he was, understandably, was pressing.

However, help was on the way, and not from where you may expect. In fact, Brooklyn took an 85-82 lead into the final frame thanks to the sophomores, after trailing by as many as seven. Cam Thomas hit two tough jumpers, including a triple, and Day’Ron Sharpe had his fifth (by my count) tip-in bucket in two games to grant the gasping Nets the slightest of breathing room.

Indeed, that was the theme of the last twelve minutes: buckets and more buckets from unexpected sources. Patty Mills, rather than Edmund Sumner, got second-half burn, and he delivered. Mills knocked down the first of back-to-back threes, the other coming from Thomas, that pushed Brooklyn’s lead to 93-85. Then, out of the subsequent Los Angeles timeout, everyone’s favorite Aussie (Sorry, Ben) recorded two consecutive steals, one of which kickstarted a fast-break that pushed the Nets’ lead back to the safe haven of double-digits:

For Patty, “The mentality is, ‘If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.’” He added, “It’s preparation, it’s approach, it’s your mindset, and being able to do that work when no one’s watching. And once your number gets called, whenever it does, you just gotta be able to make the most of that opportunity. I think that’s the professional in me that has been around and seen it and done it for so long now.”

And after putting 21 points on the board in 26 high-intensity minutes (boy does he run a lot), there’s no questioning if Mills does the work: “He is the oldest dude on our team and he works every single day and prepares himself like he’s going to play,” according to Jacque Vaughn. “And imagine the position that he’s been in; he’s had DNP-CDs this year because of this dude right here [points to self], and I challenge him to still be ready when he’s called upon.”

Staying ready became the theme of the postgame press conferences, and not just in reference to Patty Mills.

On Day’Ron Sharpe’s steady minutes and presence on the glass, Vaughn remarked, “You use your opportunity when it arrives and he’s been playing in Long Island taking advantage of minutes there,” later adding that “I give him credit for doing what he needed to do in between game days to be ready to play today. And some really good minutes from him, good lesson for him.”

Irving had something similar to say about Thomas, who ended up being a part of the closing lineup (which featured a Kyrie-Patty-Cam-Yuta foursome alongside one of Sharpe and Claxton, if you had that on your bingo card): “I feel like internally he would like to be out there, and he’s a young player that’s really hungry to be on the court.”

But Uncle Drew’s tone discussing Thomas was certainly one of pride: “So I just wanted him to be locked into this opportunity tonight, and he was ready and that just comes with the work.”

So, an iffy night became a win that maybe wasn’t delicious, but at least palatable, with some spicy moments down the stretch. Sharpe had a big dunk that got Brooklyn’s bench on its feet, Pattycakes and Killa Cam added some tough floaters, ultimately combining for 42 crucial points, 21 each. The Lakers, somewhat miraculously, ended up shooting just 1.1 percentage points worse than Brooklyn did from deep and it didn’t matter. A grand total of 66 total points from the bench was simply too overwhelming for the Angelinos.

Brooklyn is now 4-6 since Kevin Durant went down with injury, and while that may not inspire a ton of joy, it’s far from some apocalyptic losing streak. And while Nets fans may have been upset about missing their annual chance to see LeBron James in the Barclays Center, you can only be so upset about a W.

Ian Eagle in the zone

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Milestone Watch

  • Brooklyn’s 66 bench-points marked the second-most they’ve scored in a game this season, trailing just the 75-point explosion the bench had against Golden State at home
  • Day’Ron Sharpe has grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds tonight, including an astounding eight offensive boards (which somehow wasn't a career-high).
  • YES Network noted that the Nets now sit at 31-19, their fifth-best record after 50 games in franchise history.
  • This was the 11th straight time two of the game’s biggest stars, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, didn’t face off because of injury or illness. The last time KD and LBJ played against each other? Christmas Day 2018 when Durant played for the Warriors and James played for the Lakers.
  • Relatively light on the Brooklyn side, but it is worth noting that Russell Westbrook moved into 10th-place all-time for career assists, as his 8,967 dimes just outrank Gary Payton, now in 11th-place.
  • Then, there’s this piece of NBA history. For the first time ever, there were three Japanese-born players on an NBA court: Rui Hachimura of the Lakers along with Yuta Watanabe and Cam Thomas, who was born in a U.S. military hospital in Japan.

Kevin Durant hopes to be back before All-Star Game

Kevin Durant not only wants to play in the All-Star Game on February 19. He’d like to get in a few games before then. For the record, the Nets play on February 11 (vs. Philadelphia at Barclays Center), February 13 (vs. New York at Madison Square Garden) and February 15 (vs. Miami at Barclays.) So no travel other than a bus trip to Manhattan.

“More so than just the All-Star break, I just want to play games. I want to play as many games as possible, and I feel like the All-Star Game is a part of the season, so I want to be a part of everything throughout the year,” Durant said on the Etcs podcast with Eddie Gonzalez. “I hate being injured, I hate not being out there with the guys, I hate not traveling. All that stuff means a lot to me.

“I would love to, but that would be a nice target point for me — a few games before [All-Star break], get my legs under me and then slide into the All-Star break, in an ideal situation, slide into the All-Star break back healthy, back on the floor.”

The 13-time All-Star will be re-evaluated next Monday, February 6.

As SpongeBob might say...

What’s next?

The Nets will be Beantown Wednesday night to face the Celtics who have beaten them twice already this season. The nationally televised affair (ESPN) starts at 7:30 p.m. ET. Jacque Vaughn said he hopes that Ben Simmons and T.J. Warren will be available.