In a game headlined by Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the best player on the floor Wednesday night was easy to find.
Sexton, the Cavaliers' third-year point guard, hung 42 points on Brooklyn, including 15 in double overtime that turned a back-and-forth battle into a 147–135 blowout.
Chemistry was never going to come quickly for Brooklyn. The Nets looked good in the first two games of the James Harden era. Harden embraced a role as playmaker—he chipped in 12 assists against Cleveland, his third straight game with at least a dozen—and slipped in seamlessly next to Durant, his old Oklahoma City running buddy.
Wednesday, though, saw the return of Irving, the All-Star guard who had missed the last two weeks for personal reasons. It was the first test to see if the three alphas could play together.
It did not go particularly well.
There were some bright spots. The Nets made 10 straight shots to open the game. Durant made a jumper assisted by Irving. Irving knocked down a three off a pass from Durant. Harden found DeAndre Jordan on a lob and Irving on a back cut. Brooklyn’s new trio accounted for 96 points. They scored 42 of the Nets' last 57. Trailing by 12 early in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn forced overtime behind three of the best crunch-time scorers in the league.
In spurts, the Nets looked dangerous.
For other stretches, they looked helpless.
The defense, middle-of-the-pack statistically before the game, bottomed out. Cleveland came in with the NBA’s worst offensive rating. Against the Nets, Cleveland looked like the Showtime Lakers. Down Darius Garland and Kevin Love, the Cavs carved up Brooklyn. They shot 51.4% from the floor. They made 50% of their threes. They scored 64 points in the paint. Seven Cleveland players scored in double figures, including ex-Net Jarrett Allen, who racked up a double double.
“We had breakdowns all over the place,” said Steve Nash. “First night we had everyone on the floor together. We seemed a little lost at times, which is natural because we haven’t played together. So there is a little indecision … but I stay positive. This is a process. It’s going to take the entire year.”
It is a process. But there are questions about the Nets' personnel. Brooklyn doesn’t have a proven perimeter stopper. The best rim protector is DeAndre Jordan, who with Allen gone has been thrust into a larger role. The first big off the bench is Reggie Perry, a 20-year old rookie on a two-way contract. Jeff Green is asked to spend stretches at center.
“Because we have offensive personnel, it doesn’t mean we can’t be better defensively,” Nash said. “We have got to improve our communication. We have to improve [on] getting guys in better condition. We feel positive that we can improve defensively but it definitely has to be a priority for us.”
Nash is under a microscope. The first-year coach mixed and matched his rotations before the Harden trade. Since then, he has leaned on his stars. Durant played 50 minutes against Cleveland. Harden, too. Irving and Green played 45. Officially, the Nets had a nine-man rotation. But after Joe Harris, who went 42 minutes, no one on Brooklyn’s bench went more than 12.
“First of all, we found ourselves in a hole,” Nash said, explaining his shortened rotation. “The second unit got beat up pretty good there in the second quarter. We relied on our star players. When you get yourself in a dogfight, when you’re trying to climb out of a hole, it’s hard to really go to the bench. We were in the game, we had a chance to come back, we had a chance to win and we didn’t do it. Right now, it looks like we made the wrong decision. But if they don’t make that three at the end of the first overtime, it looks like it’s worthwhile. Sometimes you roll the dice. The second unit didn’t perform tonight the way we think they should.”
There’s no reason to panic. The Nets are 16 games into what is scheduled to be a 72-game season. They are one game into the bizarre marriage of three of the NBA’s best scorers. They will get better. Irving, who played in his first game in Cleveland since forcing a trade in 2017, was asked what his experience with the Cavs' Big Three taught him about what it takes for stars to be successful. “Resolve, compromise and sacrifice,” Irving said.
Durant, Harden and Irving are fierce competitors—the good days will outnumber the bad.
But this will be bumpy. And the Nets may need an influx of talent to push them to a championship level. Jordan and Green are in their 30s with a lot of miles on them. Perry, Bruce Brown and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot are unproven. Brooklyn figures to be an appealing destination for buyout-deadline free agents, but with the play-in tournament expanding the field, who knows how many quality players will be bought out?
Brooklyn has the firepower to beat anyone. It’s finding a balance that will make them successful.
We will learn more about the Nets on Friday, when they face another tough test.