The best roster the Nets have ever assembled just rolled to the best road trip they’ve ever enjoyed.
Five up, five down and a perfect West Coast swing — capped by Sunday’s 112-108 victory over the Clippers at Staples Center.
Nets owner Joe Tsai — who has a home just south in tony La Jolla — was on hand to see firsthand the budding superteam his billions have built. It ran the Nets’ winning streak to six, all but one of those coming on this breakthrough trip. The perfect 5-0 West Coast swing is the longest undefeated trip in team history.
Brooklyn ran out to a 15-point third-quarter cushion before Kawhi Leonard (29 points) knotted it at 108-all with 28.6 seconds left. But DeAndre Jordan tipped in a missed 3 by Kyrie Irving with 11 seconds remaining in regulation. Two seconds later James Harden — renowned for his offense — made the game-saving play on the other end. Defending Leonard, the Clippers star was called for a push-off and offensive foul.
Harden (37 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists) sank both free throws with seven seconds left to ice it. Kyrie Irving added 28 points and eight assists.
“Winning is always the best medicine for everything,” Steve Nash said. “But more importantly, our team has come together, played well. We’ve improved every game, we’ve learned something about ourselves; so it was very productive in a lot of ways, not just in winning.
“We played some good teams, we got some good challenges and we’ve responded. So just to see them come together a little bit and for us to grow what we’re trying to do, making small improvements, that’s all we ask. They provided that on this trip, so it’s been really positive.”
Positive doesn’t cover it.
They went on the road and beat the Warriors, Kings, Suns, Lakers and now the Clippers, and earning all of those victories but the first without injured Kevin Durant.
But despite giving up 34 points to Paul George, their defense has come together, their bench has come around and most of all Harden has looked like an MVP, making everybody better.
“The biggest thing is they know they’re going to get opportunities. They know he’s very unselfish, he’s got great vision and he’s going to manipulate the defense,” Nash said. “It gives them confidence they’re going to get looks; that gives you life.
“It gives you life to know that someone’s looking for you, someone wants to get you the ball, and if [defenders] make a mistake, you’re going to get it. So there’s a little secret sauce in there when you have a player of his caliber, because it gives the team a little extra belief, a little extra sense of belonging and hope that you’re a part of this. And James has done a beautiful job facilitating that.”
Harden’s ex-Houston teammate Patrick Beverley tried to get him off his game early, fouling him in transition and getting into it with the Nets star. If anything, it just made Harden more aggressive.
Down 21-15, the Nets went on a 13-1 run to lead 28-22. And even though they had a brief hiccup — allowing the next dozen points, spanning the first and second quarters to go down by six — Brooklyn recovered almost immediately.
Harden led the Nets to a four-point edge midway through the second before Nash gave him a breather. He didn’t come back until 2:11 left in the half, when Joe Harris’ free throws made it 54-48.
Nash had gotten away with those stolen minutes, and it paid off.
The Nets continued to take control through the third quarter, largely on the strength of their rapidly improving defense.
Harris drilled his first 3-pointer off the game, and then found Irving leaking out downcourt for a fast-break bucket and 69-58 lead. Irving’s rare double-pump breakaway dunk sent the Nets’ bench into celebration and the Clippers into a timeout with 9:06 left in the third.
The Nets padded the cushion to 94-79 on a Harris 3. Granted, they missed five of their first seven shots in the fourth to let the Clippers back into it. A Paul George 3-pointer capped a 9-0 run and cut the lead to just 96-90 with 6:54 to play. But Harden stemmed the tide, drilling a 3 over George that killed the run.
Brooklyn led 105-99 with 2:50 left when it lost Jeff Green to an injury after a Beverley foul. They saw it cut to a deuce on a Lou Williams 3 with a minute to play, and Jordan’s foul let Leonard knot it with 28.6 seconds remaining in regulation.