The Nets believe they found something, and it’s why they snapped their four-game losing streak in the second game of a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz on Friday.
The revelation came in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, when Kyrie Irving scored 21 of his 30 points in the final period in a late-game rally that fell just short.
Irving scored another 21 points in the fourth quarter of the skid-snapping victory against the Jazz. Only this time, he didn’t start the game 3-of-16 from the field through the first three periods.
This time, Irving was equally as hot from start to finish. He posted a season-high 48 points on 18-of-29 shooting from the field. He shot 8-of-15 from three-point range to go with 11 rebounds and six assists.
After repeated claims that he had to be better for his teammates with Kevin Durant out likely until early February with a sprained MCL in his right knee, Irving answered the bell with his best game of the season.
“The way we started off the game really made the difference tonight, and the way we finished, I felt like we grew as a squad,” he said postgame. “I’m proud of the guys. Obviously, it’s one win, but when you’re on a bit of a losing streak, everything can feel exacerbated, everything can feel like it’s pressure. I feel like we’re rising to the challenge and tonight, we proved it on the road.”
It was more than just the points, even though there were many.
Irving was credited for one charge but it felt like he took three. The 11 rebounds spoke volumes for a player who stands just 6-foot-2, as did the number of loose balls Irving dove on the floor chasing to energize his team.
It’s one thing when Irving is having a special scoring night. He averages just under 27 points per game. Explosive scoring nights are bound to happen.
It’s another entirely when Irving is fully locked in on every facet of the game.
“It gives us confidence,” said sixth man Seth Curry. “We know we’ve got the best player on the floor, so we play a little bit harder on the defensive end. We work a little harder setting screens and want to make plays all over the floor. That gives us confidence when he’s playing the way he is.”
It started in the fourth quarter against the Suns when Irving snapped out of a scoring funk and took over the game down the stretch. The Nets turned the ball over too many times in the final period to secure a win in Phoenix, but they finally found a scoring rhythm with Durant out of the lineup.
The Nets outscored the Suns, 38-23, in the final period of what became a five-point loss and their fourth straight defeat. The Nets had to come back from down 24 to make it a game down the stretch.
When winning time came around, the team ran out of gas.
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn continued to reference spacing — that it was optimal in the fourth quarter against the Suns and that it carried over into Friday’s victory over the Jazz. Vaughn also said the Nets are growing in their ability to play with both Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton on the court together, even though neither are capable three-point shooters and both struggle at the foul line.
“In the fourth quarter against Phoenix, we found a good rhythm and we wanted to go back to the spacing that we had,” Vaughn said. “His ability to play pick and roll is gonna garner so much attention, especially when he shoots the three-ball. We’ve got bigs that are able to catch in the half-roll and play-make also. So putting shooters around [Kyrie] — Seth, Joe, Royce, Yuta — it’s pretty lethal.”
The issue, of course, is Irving doesn’t average 48 points per game with Durant out of the rotation. In fact, he struggled shooting from in each of his last three games before Utah.
Until the fourth quarter against the Suns.
Irving has scored 69 points in his last five quarters. He is 26-of-40 from the field in that stretch. History suggests he will eventually cool off, but the rest of the team can’t if they’re going to survive the brutal stretch of playoff opponents on the schedule in the games leading up to Durant’s return.
“Our energy and our enthusiasm to compete. I think that was the biggest thing,” Vaughn said. “In huddles we were extremely vocal and communicative tonight, talking to each other on the floor. I just thought overall our spirit was really good and we were rewarded for it.”