The difference in Knicks-Nets rivalry: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving

It was admirable the Knicks looked at Wednesday’s Nets contest as a big game and a potential big win as they play out the string. Obi Toppin said it was a victory they had “to have,” and they built a 21-point lead early in the third quarter.

But the Nets of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry wouldn’t let this be a Knicks night, wouldn’t let them have one nice parting gift before Tom Thibodeau’s club shuts it all down Sunday.

The Nets, outhustled for 2¹/₂ quarters, bombarded the Knicks in the game’s final 16 minutes and racked up a double-digit win, 110-98.

For a change, there were plenty of Nets fans inside “the mecca” who made a racket as Durant finished with a triple-double, Irving racked up 24 points and Curry and Patty Mills put up a pair of 15-point nights.

The Knicks (35-45) are out of the postseason and the Nets, for all their marquee talent, are only on its fringes.

But they still reminded everyone what the superstars can achieve and they awoke in time to knock out the star-less Knicks, whose best player, RJ Barrett, still has trouble shooting from range and closing in a clutch way.

“That helps,” Thobdeau said, laughing when asked about the Nets possessing two superstars for a tight fourth quarter. “But I love our young guys. I love what they’re doing and they’re getting better and better.

Kyrie Irving celebrates with Kevin Durant during the Nets' 110-98 win over the Knicks.
Kyrie Irving celebrates with Kevin Durant during the Nets’ 110-98 win over the Knicks.
Jason Szenes

“Hey look, those guys over there were once young guys, too. It’s part of this league. Trial and error. Kyrie, Kevin, throw in Patty and Curry, you get that through experience. The more we go through it, the better we’ll get at it.”

Barrett has 23 points, but it was a messy 23 as he shot 7-for-27 — 2-for-11 from 3-point range. The Knicks mustered two points in the final five minutes.

“It’s fun to go against them, but really disappointed, really upset,” Barrett said. “I felt we should’ve had that one.”

With 10:30 left, Irving stole it from Alec Burks, fed ahead to Durant for an easy dunk to close within 84-83, and it was clear it was a matter of time before owner James Dolan would have to live with an 0- 4 record against the cross-the-East River rivals.

Durant splashed two wide-open 3-pointers during the comeback and he just might as well have thrown a pie in Dolan’s face to boot as the Knicks owner sat in his customary baseline seat.

The Knicks still grab the bigger headlines in New York — although not nationally. The Knicks’ headlines taper off after Sunday’s finale versus Toronto at the Garden. The Knicks close up shop and prepare for the lottery on May 17.

Knicks president Leon Rose faces a make-or-break offseason that will determine whether he is qualified to remain in his position. There isn’t an NBA team that would’ve handed over the keys to Rose like Dolan did two years ago.

As the Nets move on to the postseason still with hope, the Knicks enter the offseason hoping for a long-shot summer splash.

Tom Thibodeau
Jason Szenes

The Big Bang Theory is this could be the offseason Donovan Mitchell demands a trade to the Knicks to rejoin his former CAA agent (Rose) and assistant coach Johnnie Bryant. Rose has his fingers crossed.

Or in a riskier proposition, the Pelicans and Zion Williamson, also repped by CAA, realize theirs is a doomed marriage. Perhaps New Orleans shops him if it’s clear Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin won’t offer him a max rookie contract extension in October since he’s been injured since his first summer league game against the Knicks.

And better yet, maybe Durant, if Brooklyn is bounced in the play-in, finally realizes he’s on the wrong side of the East River and made a mistake to follow Irving in 2019. But don’t count on it. He takes relish in beating the Knicks and hasn’t lost to them since 2013.

“We know how much Knicks fans don’t like us,” Durant said. “Especially now this era, with us not choosing the Knicks, me and Kyrie. It definitely adds something to the rivalry no matter who is on the team. If we get more and more animosity between the fan bases, it’s only good for the game.”

Knicks fans will cling to the fantasies of Mitchell and Zion after this failed season that can’t end soon enough. The Nets will take the stage after Sunday, and Irving’s vaccination status — as egregious as the whole episode was — can be put aside.

The Knicks were all vaccinated entering training camp and never had any issues with the city’s government. But all that compliance didn’t get them past Sunday or a victory this season against Brooklyn.

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