Nets fans owe a thank-you to Drederick Irving for one of Brooklyn’s most thrilling victories of the season. According to Kyrie, his father “told me to get my balance underneath me every time I shoot these threes.” Well, when Kyrie took a few dribbles to the right and hit Fred VanVleet with a patented snatch-back before raising up the shoot a majestic, game-winning buzzer-beater to give the Nets their ninth win in ten games…he had his balance underneath him. And he sent Brooklyn fans into euphoria.
There remains no greater joy than watching Irving operate. It is the pull-back of his boomeranging Brooklyn tenure. This isn’t the time to describe the entirety of the Irving experience. But watching him figure out ways to put the ball in the basket recalls the child-like wonderment of falling in love with this game in the first place. It’s art, it’s magic, it’s jaw-dropping. Watching Kyrie dance, though, with the game on the line? It only amplifies the experience.
“He definitely has an inner peace and poise that you have to have in that situation, not to panic. He has an innate ability to get to his spot,” said Jacque Vaughn. Just the truth.
But that was the end; let’s start at the beginning. I wrote in the game preview that I was expecting a bit of a slow start for Brooklyn. Nothing against these new and improved Nets, but coming off three rest days facing a Toronto team rapidly approaching the “make-or-break” point of their season just seemed like a fitting recipe for it. “It certainly won’t be surprising if the Nets go down 13-4 or something like that. Long layoff for them, motivated Raptors team, pumped up crowd,” was the verbiage I used.
And that did happen. Just, the Nets didn’t correct course so quickly. Toronto built an 18-point lead in the first half, and turned Brooklyn’s half-court offense into yellow snow. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving each hit some tough shots to salvage the half, at least a bit, cutting it to 10 at the second quarter buzzer. But it didn’t feel sustainable. The ball wasn’t moving; Toronto was dictating the terms of engagement.
Brooklyn did what good teams do, though. Sure, Malachi Flynn came through with a surprising performance; Fred VanVleet put together his second consecutive strong outing. VanVleet’s a good player though, it’ll happen. He was making tough shots. Through all of it, you could see Jacque Vaughn’s influence permeating through the on-court product. All the clichés came true: They turned up the intensity in the second half, weathered the storm, and everybody contributed.
By the end of the third quarter, Brooklyn took their largest lead of the game, four points. You knew we were in for a competitive fourth quarter against a team that, while underperforming, certainly isn’t one to be taken lightly. And that’s what we got. The Nets took a 105-97 lead, and it appeared to be all good, but some rough offense and Scottie Barnes’ bully-ball erased it.
In his return to Toronto, Yuta Watanabe had the two biggest offensive plays of the night, sans-Kyrie shot. He set up this huge go-ahead basket with a nice drive and dish:
And then, of course, a go-ahead three set up by a great Kyrie Irving drive and dish. What does it say about his burst onto the scene that we had no doubts this was going in?
Who needs KD’s offense when you have Yuta and Kyrie? KD came through on D, though with a huge, unofficial block to prevent Scottie Barnes from converting a go-ahead three-point play. And then Kyrie. What a win.
The Film Room
In terms of X’s, and O’s, Brooklyn reversed a stagnant start, where their offense was entirely too easy to guard:
Some clips from the first half (I just caught up), starting with this ugly opening possession. Stagnant, the ball entered with half the shot clock gone: pic.twitter.com/8UlqvGtP4d
— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 17, 2022
That’s not to say it was always easy, but the process was much better by the second half:
This is a really encouraging possession from Brooklyn. Nothing easy, just like the first half, but continued attacking of closeouts and the ball ends up in the best player’s hands and Kyrie makes a play: pic.twitter.com/9vfVBSwjRH
— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 17, 2022
Per usual, though, the offense really shone in transition, or at least when the pace was pushed. It’s not that Ben Simmons has to throw it the length of the court with 22 on the shot-clock for the offense to work, just some oomph does the trick. Any time Toronto was on their heels enough to be unsure in their match-ups, still scrambling at the point-of-attack, good things happened:
The spacing is still a bit rough. Guys pass the ball and stand still, there’s a significant lack of relocation ability when neither Seth Curry nor Joe Harris are on the court. But the process and tempo improved greatly throughout the game.
Defensively it was a similar story, improved effort and whatnot. But boy oh boy I have to shout out Nic Claxton, who deserves his own article after turning in a game that should serve as a nice centerpiece for his budding All-Defensive Team campaign. Six blocks, countless contests at the basket, and continued stops after switching out onto the perimeter. Here’s just one example:
Whole lot of them…
- Kevin Durant moved within one point of John Havilchek on the all-time scoring list … and within three of Paul Pierce. KD, now 18th all-time, has 26.394 to Havilchek’s 26.395 and Pierce’s 26.397. He’s 102 shy of Tim Duncan for 15th.
- Kyrie Irving’s game-winning buzzer-beater is Brooklyn’s first since Brook Lopez on March 21, 2017 vs. Detroit.
- The Nets earn a 4-0 season series sweep of Toronto with tonight’s win. Since the Raptors’ inaugural season (1995-96), this is the second time the Nets have swept the Raptors in a season (also: 2002-03).
- With the Nets’ win at Toronto tonight:
—Season-high fifth straight win.
—Ninth win in their last 10.
–12th win in their last 15.
—Season-best three straight road wins.
—18-12 record on the season (8-7 on the road).
- Nic Claxton (15 points, 10 boards) had a career-high six blocks.
The Nets travel juuust south of the border to Detroit, for a Sunday evening game vs. the rebuilding Pistons with a 6:00 pm ET tip.