Someday soon the Brooklyn Nets will have a big three that could rival the best trios that ever have been assembled. On this night, they had only one of the pieces in place — but that was more than enough to overwhelm a Knicks team that remains in search of a star.
With Kyrie Irving missing and James Harden just a headline who hasn’t arrived yet, it was Kevin Durant who was left to shoulder the load, and he proved to be more than up to the task with 26 points. The Knicks fell behind quickly and by as many as 19 before a late run as the Nets won, 116-109, at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks could not contain Durant, who played in back-to-back games for the first time since suffering an Achilles tear in the playoffs two seasons ago. He had plenty of help, with seven of the Nets' nine active players scoring in double figures.
The Knicks had Julius Randle (30 points) carrying the load alone for much of the night before too-little, too-late contributions from RJ Barrett (18 of his 20 points in the second half).
"Probably the greatest basketball player I’ve ever played against," Immanuel Quickley said of Durant. "He shot one shot on me and I don’t even know, it was like a video game. I was right there and he just drained it all net. And I just went down the court when we was on offense and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that was crazy.’ "
It was just 18 months ago that the Knicks thought they were positioned to make a run at Durant and Irving. Instead, they have embarked on a rebuild and continue to wait for the first star to grab their money. They currently sit with the lowest payroll in the NBA.
"For us, we have to focus on us and the players that we have," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Just focus on our improvement and just doing the things that are necessary to get better each and every day.
"We’re not concerned with them. They worry about themselves and we have to worry about us. So that’s what we’ll do. That’s the beauty — our division is loaded. We know that. We know the makeup of each roster and we know that we have a lot of work to do and we’re looking forward to that challenge."
A day after the Nets used the help of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen for a stirring victory, they were gone, part of a massive four-team trade that brought Harden to the Nets. But with the trade not even officially completed or announced, Harden and the pieces who had been sent out weren't with the team, leaving this game in a bit of a limbo state.
"I think it’s part of the NBA and I think when you look at it over the course of time, you’ve seen a lot of those games in which the trades occurred and teams were shorthanded and they come out and they play with great intensity," Thibodeau said.
"This team is different because of Durant and the problems that he poses. Then you also add in the COVID and the things we’re going through I think every night it’s about adjustments. You have to adapt quickly. So this is no different. Just be ready for whoever they have and we have to know them well."
The Knicks hardly were in any position to take any team lightly, not with a three-game losing streak entering Wednesday and an inability to score anywhere close to what the Nets did before this trade. The Nets entered the game averaging 118.8 points per game, ranking third in the NBA. The Knicks were 29th at 100.1 — and in the previous three games, it had been 89, 89 and 88.
Thibodeau has had experience on a staff of a team trying to balance stars, not that different from the group that Brooklyn has united with Harden, Durant and Irving.
"I know in Boston when we had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, that was the big question," he said of the championship team that he was part of as an assistant coach. "I think great players always figure out how to play with each other. They also make other players a lot better. So I think it’s not as hard as people would make it out to be. I think the biggest challenge is the willingness for everyone to sacrifice. If that happens, usually the result is very good."