CLEVELAND — The Nets — who struggled to start the season under Steve Nash — extended the league’s longest winning streak. And its most glaring turnaround.
Brooklyn had the quality of its opponents and the worth of its wins questioned — until now. The Nets backed up Friday’s mauling of Milwaukee by beating Cleveland 125-118 before a sellout crowd of 19,432 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Kevin Durant led the way as usual with 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists with Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lamar Stevens all taking turns on him and all failing. Kyrie Irving had 32 on a season-high 7 of 11 from deep, while T.J. Warren added season-highs of 23 points and eight boards off the bench.
The ninth straight win vaulted the Nets (22-12) a half-game ahead of Cleveland into third in the East.
“We all look for matchups in the regular season that mean something,” Durant said. “We all love the playoffs; so as close as we can get to that type of intensity, you want that in a regular season.”
The Nets were better on both ends of the court. Despite giving up a game-high 46 to Darius Garland, they got stops when needed. And against the top-ranked defense in the league, they shot .573, including 18 of 30 from deep. Durant and Irving topped 30 for the fifth time together this season, tying a league-high.
Asked the secret to the Nets’ sudden success, Jacque Vaughn distilled it into a single word.
“Basketball,” Vaughn said. “We haven’t steered away from ‘today is today.’ The most important part of today is we’re trying to win this ballgame. When we step into the gym every single day, it’s about basketball: How are we going to take care of each other on the floor, cover for each other on the floor. It’s about basketball.”
The Nets, just 2-5 under Nash, are 20-7 since Vaughn replaced him — and an even better 18-5 since he was named full-time coach.
In short, they’re looking like the team they were supposed to be all along since they landed Durant and Irving in 2019.
“You think about the level of talent on that floor, and how dynamic they are and the things that they’re capable of doing, there’s no reason you’d look at them and not see them as contenders. That’s what they are,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said.
“It appears that basketball is the main thing. You’re hearing less noise about other things. It seems like every conversation is just about basketball now. And when you have players the caliber of Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, if basketball is the main thing they’re going to be very difficult to beat. … And that’s what it seems like has been happening. I give Jacque a lot of credit.”
Trailing 10-9 after a Donovan Mitchell step-back 3, the Nets ran off 10 unanswered points to take a lead they would never surrender.
Warren’s 3 off a Royce O’Neale feed made it 19-10, with 5:22 left in the first quarter, and it was 34-22 by the end of the period. Sparked by O’Neale’s 10 points, the Nets had shot .565 and 5 of 9 from behind the arc against the Cavs’ league-leading defense, and it set the tone for the rest of the evening.
With Simmons doing the dirty work on defense and the offensive glass, he also hit a hook shot to give the Nets a 40-29 cushion.
Cleveland (22-13) started to double Durant and it sparked a 14-4 run. Darius Garland’s 3 capped the spurt and cut the Nets’ lead to 44-43.
It was 46-45 with 3:15 left in the half, but the Nets scored the next 13 unanswered points, capped by a Warren pull-up with 1:21 remaining.
The run reached 19-2, and Irving had 13 in that spurt, his pull-up making it 65-47 in the waning seconds of the half.
The Nets’ cushion eventually got to 19, at 68-49 on Irving’s 3 to open the second half and again at 102-83 with 10:13 remaining in the game.
Brooklyn held Cleveland at arm’s length the rest of the evening. It got to 121-115 on Cedi Osman layup, and Garland pulled Cleveland within four with 44 seconds left. But the Nets closed it out on the line.
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