The good news is that the Nets look primed to enter these playoffs with a bang. The bad news is that Kyrie Irving left Tuesday night’s game, also, with a bang.
The Nets made quick work of the Bulls in a 115-107 win in Chicago, but lost Irving to a dangerous-looking play with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, when he took Nikola Vucevic’s elbow hard to the eye area and was down for a significant amount of time, writhing in pain and banging his fist against the hardwood. He eventually walked to the locker room under his own power but was ruled out for the rest of the game with a facial contusion.
Steve Nash said after the game that Irving didn’t have a concussion, but X-rays were inconclusive and that more scans would be needed Wednesday morning. Irving fractured his orbital bone in the preseason last year. Nash didn’t know how much time, if any, Irving would have to miss.
"I thought he would be alright," Kevin Durant said. "He mixes it up a lot with the big fellas so he might catch an elbow here and there. And Kyrie, he plays with such toughness and competitiveness. I knew he'd get up, but I knew he took a nice one, a nice elbow to the face. So, hopefully he gets checked out tomorrow, sees everything is alright and we move forward."
And though it was a significant blow, it was one of the few things that went wrong for the Nets, who are making their play for entering these playoffs extremely loud and extremely dangerous.
The Nets had 32 team assists with only eight turnovers, and eight players scored in double digits. They displayed the sort of cohesiveness that has sometimes eluded them this season. From the beginning Tuesday, they championed ball movement, balanced scoring and physicality – completely overpowering a Bulls defense that wasn’t sure where the next attack was coming from. The Nets also stayed ahead of the Bucks for the second seed in the East, and the chance for home-court advantage in the second round.
Durant led all scorers with 21 points and Mike James, in for Irving, scored 11 points with six assists and seven rebounds off the bench.
It was, in all, a huge turnaround from the four-game losing streak that may have had people questioning exactly how far this Nets team can go against playoff opponents. Things shifted significantly in the second half of their game against the Nuggets Saturday, and they brought that same energy into Tuesday.
"We had to play harder," James said. "Since I’ve been here – obviously, I haven’t been here that long – I feel like sometimes we kind of come out lackadaisical and I think because we’re so talented, sometimes we get a little bit complacent and just figure that we can come back from anything. But when we play how we did tonight, locked in on defense and everybody playing of one accord, it’s really tough to beat, especially when Ky and James (Harden) are playing, we’re one of the best teams in the NBA."
The Nets carried a double-digit lead for large swaths of the game before a 13-3 run in the fourth helped the Bulls close some real estate. Zach LaVine’s free got them to within 107-101 with 1:39 to go but Jeff Green’s layup, and strong late-game defense kept the Bulls at bay.
Green scored 14 off the bench and Nic Claxton scored 10 with 10 boards.
They led the Bulls 64-51 at the half, collected 20 assists, which tied a season-high for assists in a half. Bruce Brown, wearing a face mask after breaking his nose during a collision in practice, scored all 15 of his points in that span – the most he’s ever scored in any first half. Brown added 10 rebounds for the game.
"We were flying around everywhere, we kept it simple, we contested shots well and we boxed out," Durant said. "They had 10 offensive rebounds, but I don't feel like those things hurt us that much. For the most part, man, I think we just did a good job of flying around and being there for each other."
Just in time, too.