“They take us for granted,” Kevin Durant recently told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill, referring to what seemed like precious little attention being paid to his Nets starting to play their best ball of the season. “Me and [Kyrie Irving] especially. We gotta jump through a Hula Hoop of fire [for people] to be impressed.”
You can kind of understand where Durant was coming from. “They” — we media members, as well as fans, onlookers and mess lovers of all stripes — leveled countless commentaries and condemnations at Brooklyn throughout months of chaos marked by trade requests, firings demanded and executed, sluggish vibes on the court and rancid ones off it. Once KD and Co. finally started to put it all together, though, it was all crickets. What gives? Whatever happened to equal time, fairness, ethics in basketball journalism, etc.?
Some of the comparative silence probably stemmed from a reluctance to get too comfortable sounding the all-clear, given how frequently, quickly and dramatically we’ve seen things go haywire at Barclays Center over the past four seasons. Some of it probably traced back to the somewhat underwhelming circumstances of Brooklyn’s ascent: In the 13-game span between Thanksgiving and the publication of KD’s chat with Goodwill, the Nets played just one team that ranked in the top 10 in net rating, and they lost.
Some of it might be that, with all due respect to The Posting God, KD has it backwards. Everybody knows that he and Irving can leap through flaming rings with the greatest of ease; it’s just that we don’t necessarily feel compelled to applaud them for just deciding not to host the circus for a while.
Whatever the case was then, there is no case for staying quiet now. Not after Brooklyn has won 12 straight, the longest winning streak in the NBA this season, and 16 of its last 17 contests. At a certain point, you are what your record says you are, and the Nets’ record is 25-12 with the NBA’s No. 3 net rating, now 21-5 since removing the interim tag from Jacque Vaughn, and just a half-game out of first place in the East entering Wednesday’s matchup with the Bulls — says they are a bona fide championship contender.
Which is to say: After failing spectacularly to meet the standard last season, the Nets finally look as good as they think they are and like the team we thought they could be.
That starts, as all things in Brooklyn do, with Durant, who has looked every ounce as dominant as he’s ever been and — at age 34, now three and a half years removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon — maybe playing the best basketball of his career.
Durant sits seventh in the NBA in scoring, averaging 29.6 points on 56/36/93 shooting splits — career-high shooting efficiency, which is saying something, considering he is Kevin Freaking Durant — to go with 6.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s shooting a ludicrous 63.2% on 2-point attempts despite taking only 2.5 shots per game at the rim and constantly firing with every team’s best and longest-limbed defender draped all over him; he’s taking seven heavily contested midrange shots per game, according to Second Spectrum, and drilling nearly 58% of them. Just look at this filth:
Durant doing that against No. 1 stoppers gives Irving the opportunity to feast against secondary perimeter defenders, which he has done to the tune of 25.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 52/42/90 shooting since returning from his eight-game suspension. In that span, Brooklyn has scored a scorching 119.5 points per 100 possessions — the best offensive mark in the NBA. This, of course, was always the fundamental concept of these Nets, and it has always made sense: Pair two of the best isolation players and most dangerous high-volume scorers on the planet who can also beat you with the pass; score a lot of points; win a lot of games.
The nettlesome issues have always been getting them on the court together for an extended period of time without a hellmouth opening up under Atlantic Avenue and swallowing the whole franchise, and surrounding them with players who can both take advantage of the defensive attention they demand and defend well enough to hold up against elite opponents. Well, Irving’s suspension notwithstanding, so far, so good. For one thing, KD and Irving have already played more minutes this season than they did last year, and almost as many as they did two seasons ago. For another, the complementary pieces that Sean Marks and Brooklyn’s front office brought in to flank his stars are finally healthy and, y’know, complementing.
The biggest non-vaccination-related reason why last season’s Nets flamed out was that their malformed rotation couldn’t consistently get stops when it counted. Opponents could pick their poison, forcing either a lumbering big (LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap) or a Lilliputian guard (Irving, Seth Curry, Patty Mills, Goran Dragic) into the action, and exploit their preferred mismatch. If that didn’t work, they could just hammer the offensive glass, knowing that Brooklyn’s switching defense often pulled its big men away from the rim and opened the door to second-chance opportunities against undersized backtracking guards. The numbers backed that up: Brooklyn finished last season dead last in defensive rebounding rate and 21st in defensive efficiency, and gave up a ghastly 119.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions to the Celtics in their first-round sweep.
This year’s model, though, has proven more capable of holding up on the defensive end, ranking eighth in the league in points allowed per possession and an exceptionally tidy fourth since Vaughn took the reins. One big reason why? They’re just bigger.
The returns of Brooklyn’s wounded wings means that Vaughn — who, by the way, has provided exactly the sort of “accountability and defense” vibe shift that reportedly informed Brooklyn’s brief and unconsummated dalliance with Ime Udoka — can lean on lineups that balance defensive length, versatility and IQ with floor spacing and offensive oomph. Whatever his shot-making warts, Ben Simmons remains 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan and a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up on his résumé. People’s champ Yuta Watanabe goes 6-foot-9 with a constantly revving engine. TJ Warren, finally healthy after missing almost two years with a stress fracture in his left foot, is a burly 6-8 and 220 pounds; Joe Harris, sidelined for most of last season with ankle injuries, stands 6-6 and 220.
Add that quartet to Durant and perfect-fit glue guy Royce O’Neale, and you’ve got real size on the perimeter — the kind that opponents can’t just blithely shoot over without a second thought, that forces them to think hard about what constitutes a matchup worth hunting and that can straighten the spine of the kind of switching scheme that Brooklyn favors, and that best highlights the skills of a hyper-athletic quick-twitch center like Nic Claxton. Nobody switches ball screens more frequently than the Nets, according to Second Spectrum’s data tracking, and they’re giving up just 0.91 points per chance on possessions where they switch a ball screen, the league’s third-stingiest mark. Combine that with those dudes playing their roles on offense — Watanabe, O’Neale and Harris are all shooting over 40% from 3-point range during Brooklyn’s surge; Claxton leads the league in field-goal percentage; Simmons and Warren are both over 60% inside the arc; and Simmons and O’Neale are combining for more than 10 assists per game — and you’ve got a recipe for an awfully dangerous team.
Questions persist. Simmons has been legitimately helpful — right around 12 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and four deflections per 36 minutes of floor time since Vaughn took over while defending top scoring threats of all shapes and sizes — and Brooklyn has actually outscored opponents by a healthy 3.6 points-per-100 when he’s shared the court with Claxton, despite the interior-congestion concerns associated with playing two non-shooters. Even so: That he hasn’t made a free throw since the day after Thanksgiving, though, and that he’s only attempted 42 in 27 games this season, remains a cause for potential Hack-a-Ben concern come the postseason. Tighten the margins on Brooklyn’s spacing and shot-making just a bit, and the need for those supporting cast members to keep making their threes at a 40% clip becomes even greater; bring that shooting back to Earth even a little, and Durant and Irving’s “your turn, my turn” act might start to grow stale.
As excellent as Claxton has been as a rim protector — leading the NBA in block rate, holding opponents to just 50.9% shooting at the cup, grading out as one of the league’s highest-impact defenders, according to multiple advanced metrics — and as well as the Nets have functioned as a defensive unit, it’s reasonable to wonder how well they’ll hold up in a seven-game series against the kind of world-breaking big (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid) or pair of ace wings (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) they might have to face in the playoffs. And, perhaps above all else, there’s the lingering fear of an Atlas-with-the-world-on-his-shoulders Durant suffering an injury for the third straight season, of Irving once again getting Reese Bobby-“itchy” in the dog days of the season — of the circus once again coming to town in Brooklyn.
Focus too hard on those questions, though, and you risk missing the answer at the heart of this entire Nets enterprise. This is why you risk sacrificing your underdog culture for the high-end talent in the first place, why you ride out whatever maelstroms might come with it, why you don’t accede to trade demands, why you grit your teeth through whatever fresh hell crops up on social media and in the scrum — because, through all the static, you see a team that can win the championship. Whether you believe this team will stick together long enough to have a shot at it, or whether that’s worth everything it took to get to this point, is immaterial; the Nets see it, they believe in it, and they’re playing like the team we’ve been waiting for. KD’s right about that much: Given everything that transpired over the last few years, we shouldn’t take that for granted.