Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant power Nets past Cavs in play-in game to secure 7th seed and date with Celtics – Boston Herald
For two-and-a-half quarters of Tuesday’s 115-108 play-in victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Nets gave the fans what they wanted: utter and uncontested command of the game.
A victory for a championship contender is supposed to feel dominant. It’s supposed to feel effortless. It’s supposed to remove any shadow of a doubt as to which of the two competing teams is better.
It should almost feel unopposed, and for much of Tuesday night’s matchup, the Nets looked like an unopposed title fighter, punching down on much lesser competition.
Almost everything looks uncontested for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who led Brooklyn to the win and a first-round playoff matchup against the second-seeded Boston Celtics. They became the first Nets teammates to each have 20-point, 10-assist games since 1993. Irving didn’t miss his first 11 shots despite fasting sunup to sundown for Ramadan and finished with 34 points on 12-of-15 shooting, and Durant took out his playmaker toolkit for 11 assists to go along with his 25 points.
For the first two-and-a-half quarters, the two superstars steered the Nets toward a dominant result, the likes of which have eluded this team far too often this year.
And then it happened, and it was almost predictable: The wheels started to fall off midway through the third quarter.
Twenty-two. Twenty. Seventeen. Fourteen. Twelve. The Cavaliers cut the Nets’ lead all the way down to six with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. You could feel the anxiety bubbling in the crowd.
Oh, no. It’s happening again.
“I think you have to be prepared for that in basketball,” head coach Steve Nash said. “That’s the game. Anxiety is part of the game, stress is the spine of the game.”
But the Nets have been here before. In fact, they’ve been here more times than Durant would prefer.
Blown leads are almost intertwined into the fabric of the Nets’ DNA. They build leads, take their feet off the gas, then ramp it up — no pun intended — when the game gets too close.
It happened when they blew an 18-point lead against the Indiana Pacers, when they blew a 17-point lead against the Houston Rockets, when the league-worst Pistons turned a 10-point Nets lead into a 12-point advantage of their own, and it happened in last week’s matchup against the Cavaliers.
That night, the Nets led by 17 at the end of the first quarter and found themselves in a tie game in the fourth quarter before pulling away to win by 11.
“I think our group remains confident throughout. That’s the nature of our team this time of the year,” Nash said. “That’s a part of our journey: It’s not just go out there and build 20-point leads and turn them to 30. It’s how do we adapt, how do we adjust when they change and do different things, and try to build that cohesion in those common experiences on the fly.”
The only thing different on Tuesday night was the stakes.
A loss on Tuesday would have been devastating. It would have sent the Nets from a solidified matchup against No. 2 Boston into a win-or-go-home consolation showdown against the winner of the No. 9-10 game between the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks.
A loss, however, would have been par from the course. This is who the Nets are. They might play with their food, and it might not always be pretty, but they handle business when it matters most.
“We just stay poised,” said Durant. “We know teams are going to muck the game up when we get up and throw zones, and the next possession they may trap the pick-and-roll. So sometimes they just throw curveballs at us defensively, and it may slow us down a little bit but I think we handled everything pretty solid, even though they play different defenses.”
That’s because they’re led by two players who’ve won it all before, and a cool, calm and collected head coach in Nash, who might not be the best tactician among his peers, but continues to keep this team striving for incremental improvement on a nightly basis.
Durant, Irving and, yes, Nash, continue to keep this team on the right path, even when the going gets tough, even in the face of adversity, even when another team’s run looks like it might swing the momentum out of their favor.
“It’s desperation basketball,” said Irving. “Anything can happen down the stretch. It’s a must-win for both of us, so that was to be expected. We just didn’t want it to be too close.”
More importantly, the victory reaffirms the belief that this Nets team can turn on the jets when they need to, that they can flip the switch from a team ostensibly cruising through the regular season to one ready to power through the postseason and potentially upset a higher-seeded opponent.
The Nets can’t afford many missteps against the Celtics, not with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Coach of the Year candidate Ime Udoka waiting for their arrival.
The Nets, however, have something most other teams don’t. They have Durant and Irving, two shoo-in Hall of Famers who double as two of the best scorers in NBA history. And they have experience with their backs against the wall, because in a way, they’ve been playing urgent, desperate basketball for the past two months.
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