There are nights like this for any team with a whisker of championship ambition, nights when the most basic of all competitive elements are on display. The Nets lately looked discombobulated. They seemed disinterested. It’s a long season. Spasms of poor basketball are inevitable. But if you are the equal of your reputation, those things must pass.
They had lost three games in a row and they’d looked fairly horrific in doing so. They were coming off a dreadful loss in Detroit to a Pistons team that some nights looks to be already playing out the string. They have been the worst kind of front-runners: at the top of their game against terrific teams, lowering themselves to the dregs level of lesser teams.
This was the message Steve Nash had for his players before they took on the Pacers at Barclays Center on Wednesday night in their last game before making their way west for what ought to be an awfully interesting five-game trip:
“You can’t be having fun the way you’re playing.”
So the Nets had fun Wednesday night, certainly for an opening half in which they not only pummeled the Pacers, but also erased any trace of imagination from the game. There was a 32-5 run that closed out the half that really didn’t end until two minutes were gone in the third quarter, the splurge had expanded to 39-8 and the score was a ridiculous 69-33.
You play that well for an extended period of time, it almost doesn’t matter that the Nets spent most of the second half reclined on chaise lounges, allowing the Pacers to outscore them 61-35 the rest of the way. A win is a win. This one was 104-94. This one sent them on their merry way feeling a lot better about themselves.
And by the time they make their way through San Francisco, Sacramento, Phoenix and Los Angeles (for an uber-interesting two-step with both the Lakers and the Clippers) they’ll be reunited with Kevin Durant, they’ll be whole and they can get back to work to maximizing their fun.
“You could tell from the start they were locked in,” Nash said, “and when they are locked in you could see what they’re capable of.”
It certainly helped that the Pacers played the first half like a team that had been introduced to each other during the opening jump ball, but full credit to the Nets, who were missing Durant and who didn’t necessarily receive A-plus offensive efforts from the other two-thirds of their terrific troika, Kyrie Irving and James Harden (though combined the two were an astonishing 27-for-27 from the line).
No, during the stretch that turned the game around they played the way they always play when times are good: with an effortless smoothness that tantalizes the basketball purist in everyone. Even sans Durant there is so much basketball skill on display when things are rolling, that’s probably what makes it twice as infuriating when things go the other way.
The Nets, of course, have been afforded a couple of breaks. One is natural: the sheer length of the NBA season, even one truncated by 10 games, will allow them plenty of time to figure things out. There is still just under two-thirds of a season left.
The other is a bit more surprising: Despite the Nets’ pedestrian 15-12 record, they are still solidly in third place in an Eastern Conference, where only the 76ers (18-7) and Bucks (16-8 entering Wednesday’s game at the Suns) had jumped out to better-than-average starts to the season.
“The communication was there, the effort was there, we haven’t played defense like that the whole season,” said Joe Harris, who chipped in 17 points. “It’s definitely good seeing us take a step in the right direction.”
The Nets understand all of this perfectly well, of course. They know how much scrutiny they are under and seem to welcome it, even if it means regularly acknowledging their shortcomings. Jeff Green talked to his teammates after Tuesday’s mess in the Motor City, and while that may not have been a full-blown come-to-Jesus sermon, it touched a common nerve: A good team that doesn’t play well is a heartbreaking thing to behold.
But one that does?
For a long stretch of Wednesday night, we saw what that looked like. Pick your adjective: thrilling, breathtaking, exhilarating. As the Nets take their show on the road, they hope to be able to add a few more to that pile, and not the other one, which includes: Frustrating. Puzzling. Exasperating.