BROOKLYN – The second game of an NBA season is not supposed to be a big game.
In theory, there’s nothing that can go so spectacularly well or amazingly bad that can be turned on its head, sometimes as soon as Game 3.
But in Brooklyn? With the Nets? The franchise that’s dominated the NBA’s news cycle for all the wrong reasons in the last 12-to-18 months? (And never more so than this past summer, when Kevin Durant demanded a trade before floating the idea that head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks should be fired.)
Well, if winning cures all, the Nets had a lot of ills to nurse.
And then the season started, and the Nets were blown out at home by the New Orleans Pelicans — all of a sudden, the heat was on. It seemed everywhere I turned at Barclays Center, where Nash is beginning his third tumultuous season, the mood was: the Nets need to win.
Or what? Ever since the Durant news surfaced – and even after all parties apparently made peace – the sense around the NBA has been: if the Nets stumble early, Nash will pay the price.
He’ll have some more time before that happens, however, as his Nets competed hard and got some strong performances from their stars in a 109-105 win over the visiting Toronto Raptors that evened both team’s records at 1-1.
A jumper by Kyrie Irving and a Durant triple followed by a Royce O’Neal dagger three with 14.3 seconds left after Irving flipped the ball to him out of a Raptors double team was ultimately the defining sequence.
“If I could have that back, I would,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who made the decision to leave O’Neal and double Irving.
The Raptors wasted a tremendous performance by Pascal Siakam who may have been the most impressive star on the floor as he put up 37 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists – his second career 30-point triple-double – in the kind of outing that gives weight to his ambitions of being a first-team all-NBA selection. Once again all five Raptors were in double-figures scoring, but they got only five points from their bench.
Irving led the Nets with 30 points, while Durant chipped in 27 as the Nets shot 49.7 per cent from the floor to Toronto’s 47.5.
“We’ve just got to get stops. I thought we did a good job of settling down offensively after a bit [but] couldn’t get a stop when we needed to,” said VanVleet, who finished with 18 points, nine assists and four steals and was perfect on three triples in the fourth quarter. “… That’s a tough team to close out with those two guys offensively.”
The Raptors put themselves in a hole as they surrendered a 20-3 run over the end of the third quarter and into the early moments of the fourth. Eventually, what had been a 10-point lead turned into a 12-point advantage for Brooklyn with just under six minutes to go as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse likely went too long with a lineup featuring both Precious Achiuwa and Christian Koloko, who finished 1-of-8 from the field.
With their regulars back in, the Raptors responded with a 12-0 run of their own, mostly engineered by Siakam, who was drawing two defenders and made several good decisions in moving the ball. Toronto knotted the score 100-100 with 1:46 to play as Siakam found O.G. Anunoby for a wide-open triple, but the Raptors couldn’t push it over the top.
“He kept making really good reads,” said Nurse of Siakam’s passing. “[And] the biggest thing I thought is he played really physical. They were hitting him and banging him and he just kept on playing through it, just about every scenario.”
It was satisfying for Nash, who has been stoutly optimistic about his team’s progress even while every move has been scrutinized.
“I just thought we played really hard,” he said. “it’s not always pretty as we try to put the pieces together, but I thought our guys … never gave in and showed our team’s building an identity, even if the connections aren’t smooth yet.”
Nash has maintained his outward calm throughout the Nets’ dysfunction.
He took the Durant news in stride, despite the superstar reportedly lobbying for Nash to get the job based on the relationship they formed when Durant was in Golden State with Nash as a player development consultant there.
You play in the NBA for 18 seasons, you’re going to see some things. I asked Nash to explain – for normal people – how you go to work every day with someone who wants you fired. We didn’t have time to get into what it is to coach Ben Simmons, who missed a season with mental health issues, among other challenges, or Irving, almost inarguably one of the most talented yet flaky athletes in the world.
Nash said: “I think from the outside it can be such a hot issue and everyone can dramatize it. From the inside, this stuff happens all the time throughout the league. We kind of have short memories and then we get right into the next drama … It was just we just needed to sit down at some point.”
And then? That’s it?
“ … There’s no baggage or remnants every day at work if that makes sense. I’m sure from the outside people always wonder, ‘how?’, but that’s just what it’s like in the NBA … Maybe it’s hard to understand for someone who’s not in the building every day, but we’ve had a really great pre-season, we’ve laid the foundations, and we really need now to get that amount of time under our belts where hopefully it comes to life and hopefully it doesn’t take too long so we can get some joy on the way as well.”
In the NBA you buy time with wins.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has known Nash for years – he fondly remembers when Nash called him out of the blue when Nurse was coaching in the British Basketball League and asked if he could practice with Nurse’s team while he was in the UK on vacation, watching his brother Martin play soccer with a nearby professional club. They’ve remained friendly, and coach-to-coach, there was a lot of empathy for the Nets bench boss.
“When it’s a guy you know, for sure, you always probably pay a little more attention when it’s someone you consider a friend,” said Nurse. “Certainly, it’s hard. This job is hard. This profession is hard. That stuff just makes it harder. I think he’s handled it with great composure and class and all that kind of stuff. He’s doing a great job.”
But Nurse has a job to do too, and his involves helping the Raptors off to the best start they possibly can. There’s pressure in Toronto too.
The Raptors did their part in the first half as they managed a 52-49 lead that was helped by a couple of factors, the first being a tremendous defensive effort on Durant. He was never not shooting without a Raptors player or two seemingly in his jersey, and his 3-of-10 shooting line reflected that.
Even that Durant had four assists was a small victory, as the Raptors were successfully forcing one of the best scorers in NBA history to get off the ball.
On the other side of the ball, Siakam was the most dynamic offensive player on the floor, which is saying something given the Nets’ talent.
Over a four-minute stretch in the second quarter, Siakam scored or assisted on 16 Raptors points in an 18-7 run that put Toronto up by nine. The Nets trimmed the lead to three before half – helped by Durant who heated up a little bit with pair of free throws and a floater in the lane.
The Nets came out with some edge in the second half, and it was Durant and Irving leading the way as they collaborated on a 12-4 run that got the crowd – or at least the Nets fans sprinkled among the Raptors supporters – rolling.
Siakam responded. After putting up 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the first half he kept cooking, going off for 16 in the third quarter alone. Siakam was the driving force in a 16-5 run – a binge that included a spectacular left-handed dunk in traffic off a nifty feed from Scottie Barnes – that put the Raptors up by 10 before a 9-0 run by the Nets to end the quarter sent the Raptors into the fourth with a 79-78 lead.
But the Nets’ talent proved the difference down the stretch, much to Nash’s relief.
The Raptors’ opening schedule gets no easier as they head to Miami for two games with the Heat. In Brooklyn, Nash gets to live another day.