Not even one of the NBA’s top teams could slow the Nets’ surge.
The Nets made a definitive statement Friday night with a resounding 118-100 win over the Bucks before a sold-out crowd of 18,169 at Barclays Center. Their best league winning streak now stands at eight games.
“We understand that everyone is watching this game and everyone who came to this game saw it as more important than a regular season game,” said Kevin Durant, who led the Nets with 24 points. “So I think we tried to approach it that way.”
This approach has certainly paid off. The Nets (21-12) led up to 23 points in the second half and have now won 12 of their last 13 games. And by jostling the Bucks (22-10), the Nets have asserted themselves as contenders for the Eastern Conference.
“They play playoff-style basketball every night,” Durant said. “So it’s up to us to match that.”
Coach Jacque Vaughn made that point before the game, emphasizing the need for the Nets to come out “a little more focused.” Slow starts threatened to derail their winning streak, necessitating furious late comebacks recently in Detroit and Toronto.
No such gathering was necessary on Friday. Smooth ball movement — the Nets had 11 assists on their first 13 field goals — opened up an early seven-point lead. In the second quarter, a steal and a quick slam from Nic Claxton (19 points) boosted the Nets into double digits. This drew the ire of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 13 rebounds), whom Claxton ran into on his way back to the bench.
But that was all the fight the Bucks showed.
Still, the Nets knew not to be complacent. On October 26, in the only previous game between the two teams this season, the Nets led by 12 points at halftime and ended up losing by 11. This time they led at the break and held on.
“Sometimes you want to win too much and you end up pressing and forcing a little bit,” Durant said. “Especially when things are going so well, they can turn so fast. … We just stayed ready.
Five minutes into the third quarter, Royce O’Neale (17 points) straight away made a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 20. Moments later, Ben Simmons (12 points, 11 rebounds) threw a sky hook to inflate it to 23.
Even as the Bucks tried to mount a late comeback — drawing within 10 points numerous times in the final quarter — the Nets held their ground.
“I thought overall the mental approach of the guys, they’re going to do 3s but we didn’t panic,” Vaughn said. “Giannis is going to come through us sometimes and we’re not going to overreact. Can we be stable throughout the night? I think overall our guys reacted extremely well.
In the fourth quarter, that answer came via Kyrie Irving. Silent for much of the night after missing the final game with a right calf tightness, Irving scored 14 of his 18 points in the final quarter to push the Nets to the finish.
“As a coach, you just feel like you can’t keep missing shots,” Vaughn said. “You feel like the next one is going to come in. … These guys are too good and it’s a matter of time.”
That’s what you sometimes feel with the Nets, led by the talented tandem Durant and Irving.
Now they will look to make the good times last.
“We don’t want to take our foot off the gas pedal,” Irving said. “We know it’s a long season, but it’s a great place right now. And we feel good. »