Even a team as star-studded as the Nets needs structure, and guidance. And the occasional kick in the derriere.
The Nets got just that from Steve Nash a couple of weeks ago, and they have been the hottest team in the NBA since. And they rolled over their latest victim, the Magic, 129-92 Thursday night at Barclays Center for their eighth consecutive win.
That’s the longest winning streak in the NBA this year and the Nets’ longest since taking 14 straight from March 12-April 6, 2006. Most of this run has come without superstar Kevin Durant, who is out with a hamstring injury, and the way the Nets are playing, it’s not incomprehensible to imagine them challenging that mark.
The Nets (22-12) outscored the Magic 41-19 in the second quarter, and led by as many as 40 points while cruising to a laugher. They kept pace with the 76ers, remaining just a half-game behind Philadelphia for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Kyrie Irving (27 points, nine assists) and James Harden (20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) were right at the heart of the victory. But it was a comprehensive team performance, the Nets’ balance turning it from a win into a rout.
The Nets put six scorers in double-figures, including Landry Shamet’s 19. They shot 53.3 percent from the field and held the Magic to just 40.2 percent overall, and 9-for-36 from 3-point range. Other than Nikola Vucevic, who had 28 points, Orlando posed no threat.
The Nets actually trailed 28-18 with 1:19 left in the first quarter after a pair of Terrence Ross free throws, but two quick blitzes put the game away.
First, the Nets went on a 14-3 run that spanned the first and second quarters, pulling ahead 32-31 on a Harden pull-up 3-pointer. Another spurt later in the quarter built that lead far beyond reach of the Magic (13-20).
Clinging to a three-point cushion with 4:32 left in the half, the Nets went on a 19-3 run. When Irving found Bruce Brown for a running layup, it ran the score to 65-45 moments before the break.
The Nets led by 26 in the third quarter and by 40 in the fourth. They handed Tyler Cook his Nets debut, while Nic Claxton had 10 points and a career-high four steals in a 15-minute stint, just his second appearance of the season.
It has been a stunning turnaround from Feb. 9, when the Nets were a disappointing 14-12 after a humbling defeat in Detroit. They had shown a lack of focus in a host of upset losses against losing foes. But they’ve rebounded since, with Irving partially crediting the tough love from Nash.
“The preparation is where it starts: walk-throughs, being able to do the little things, remember the details to throw out there and just play your game with a structure in mind,” Irving said. “We need structure. NBA players, entertainers, anybody out there, we need structure to be able to succeed at the highest level.
“That’s why you see the best teams have coaches that coach the [crap] out of the players, and guys that go out there and do it. So we just want to be able to continue to stay consistent.”
After that Feb. 9 embarrassment, even the upbeat Nash was vexed. He not only had stern words for his players, but also doled out some extra work after that defeat.
“It was a back-to-back, we came home, we’re playing a very dangerous Indiana team, and laid it on the line for them before the game, which is not ideal in the regular season,” Nash said. “You don’t want to necessarily bring negative teaching clips before a game. But we didn’t have a shootaround on a back-to-back with travel, so I thought we couldn’t pass the opportunity to keep getting better.
“It started there. I don’t want to say went after them, but we were very constructive with our criticism in what needed to improve. That started it. We started adding in shootaround, which — because of COVID and a condensed schedule — we tried to go away from to start, just not have it be too waterlogged for the guys.
“Now we’re having shootarounds, getting a few more touches, to be more critical with our growth in a constructive and positive way. I don’t know if we’re coaching them any harder, but we’re definitely trying to cut to the chase and make sure we are pointing out and improving and addressing issues.”