CLEVELAND — The Nets — who struggled to start the season under Steve Nash — extended the longest winning streak in the league. And his most glaring reversal.
Brooklyn had the quality of its opponents and the value of its wins questioned – until now. The Nets backed Milwaukee Mayhem on Friday by beating Cleveland 125-118 before a sold-out 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 taking turns and all hitting. Kyrie Irving had 32 on a season-high 7 of 11 from deep, while TJ Warren added season-highs of 23 points and eight boards from the bench.
The ninth straight victory moved the Nets (22-12) a half game past Cleveland to third in the East.
“We’re all looking for regular season matchups that mean something,” Durant said. “We all love the playoffs; so as close to that type of intensity as possible, you want that in a regular season.
The Nets were better on both ends of the field. Despite giving up a record 46 to Darius Garland, they got saves when needed. And against the league’s top-ranked defense, they shot .573, including 18 of 30 from deep. Durant and Irving hit 30 for the fifth time together this season, tying a league high.
When asked about the secret to the Nets’ sudden success, Jacque Vaughn summed it up in one word.
“Basketball,” Vaughn said. “We haven’t moved from ‘today is today’. The most important part of today is that we are trying to win this football game. When we walk into the gym every day, it’s all about basketball: how are we going to take care of each other on the floor, cover 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 taking over as full-time coach.
In short, they look like the team they were meant to be since they landed Durant and Irving in 2019.
“You think about the level of talent on this floor, their drive and the things they are capable of doing, there’s no reason to look at them and not see them as contenders. That’s what ‘they are,’ Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said.
“It seems basketball is the main thing. You hear less noise about other things. It seems like every conversation is just about basketball now. And when you have players of the caliber of Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, if basketball is the main thing, they’re going to be very hard to beat. …and that’s what seems to be happening. I give a lot of credit to Jacques.
Trailing 10-9 after a Donovan Mitchell 3 pullback, the Nets dropped 10 unanswered points to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Warren’s 3 on a pass from Royce O’Neale made it 19-10, with 5:22 left in the first quarter, and it was 34-22 at the end of the period. Boosted 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 that set the tone for the rest of the night.
With Simmons doing the dirty work on defense and 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 push 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 push, his pull-up going 65-47 in the closing seconds of the half.
The Nets cushion eventually came at 19, 68-49 from 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 night. It came 121-115 on the Cedi Osman layup, and Garland got Cleveland back in the four with 44 seconds left. But the Nets closed it on the line.