This was different. This one was unique. For the first time, really, these Nets were forced to make a statement: about themselves, about their season, about where they intend to take the balance of this season. For the first time, really, these Nets, were ordered to declare themselves.
It might have been impossible to believe back in October that such a stand would be required before May Day, or that it would happen against a Charlotte Hornets team that was scuffling and one game under .500. But, then: the Nets were scuffling and one game under .500. They don’t believe their record, which is fine, as long as they could make something of a counterargument.
Which they did. At ear-splitting volume.
“That,” Steve Nash would say, “was about as well as we’ve played all year, both sides of the ball.”
He was referring to the first half of Tuesday’s 132-121 taming of the Hornets at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, and he was right. The Nets squashed the Hornets all across those first 24 minutes, rolling to a 69-43 lead. That cushion would grow as large as 34 before the Hornets started making a few shots, but by then the message was already sent.
The Nets really can be frighteningly good sometimes.
“It felt like this was my night, getting to that deep place where you’re not distracted by anything,” Kyrie Irving said. “That look on my face was that we’re ready to go out there and do what’s needed to get this win. And the results are the results.”
Irving’s voice was the loudest, and the clearest. He turned in one of the signature performances of his life, dropping 50 points (on just 19 shots) shooting 9-for-12 from 3, adding six assists. That it came on a night when Kevin Durant was uncharacteristically sluggish and scored only 14 points (though he had seven assists) was perhaps the most useful part.
Because with all the drama that has consumed the Nets in the past few weeks — centered around the James Harden/Ben Simmons sagas — and with all that has happened to the Nets, and the world, since July of 2019, it has been easy to forget something.
These Nets’ emergence as a title contender was originally — and, it was thought at the time, completely — tied to Irving and Durant. Before there was ever talk of a Big 3 there was the reality of the Big 2, Durant and Irving agreeing to go to Brooklyn together in the mid-to-late stages of their primes, teaming up to see what they could do, where they could go, how high they cold lift a franchise that’s title free since the ABA closed up shop 46 years ago.
That, alone, had made the Nets an electric story. When Harden arrived from Houston, it seemed simply an extra toy to add to the chest. Harden, after all, was joining a work-in-progress that Irving and Durant had already begun to build. And now that he’s switched places with him, that’s the role Simmons will fill, regardless of how ready he is to play when he does return to the court.
The nucleus was always KD and Kyrie.
That was always the power source.
Durant was brilliant Sunday in Boston, when the Nets nearly stole one from the Celtics. On Tuesday, it was Irving’s turn.
“We showed,” Nash said, “the level we can play at.”
Yes, the Nets’ ambitions are, and always have been, greater than a Tuesday night in March in North Carolina. But the Nets’ reality is something else: they have to be prepared to lay a hurt on all the teams with whom they’re presently battling for the play-in games. The Cavaliers — just above the play-in cutline — won again, so they remained six games up in the loss column with 16 Nets games left. There is still plenty of heavy lifting ahead.
Tuesday was a reminder that this isn’t merely a team built on hype and hyperbole. When Irving and Durant play together, they can make basketball look remarkably beautiful, and they can make even the steep mountain they’re going to have to climb, still, seem almost manageable. The Big 3 didn’t quite work out. But the Big 2 might be all they really need.