The Nets had their cake and got to eat it too Sunday night at Barclays Center. They chose not to play James Harden as a precaution to keep him healthy for the playoffs, and then they took care of business with a 123-109 victory over the Cavaliers that clinched the No. 2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference with a 48-24 record that is a franchise-record 24 games over .500.
The victory means the Nets will face the winner of Tuesday’s Celtics-Wizards play-in game for the No. 7 seed, and the third-seeded Bucks draw the No. 6 Heat.
Considering all the injuries that led to 37 different starting lineups and only eight games together for the Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden, it was a very satisfying finish. "It’s great," first-year head coach Steve Nash said. "I’m really proud of our team.
"Getting the two seed is an accomplishment for everything that we faced this year, and I feel like everybody in that locker room contributed in a meaningful way, which makes it special. A lot to be thankful for, but this is what we came for and now we get to work and really go at it."
The key to the Nets’ blowout victory was an extended 22-6 third-quarter run in which Durant scored seven of his 13 points in the period and also drew a flagrant foul two against Cavaliers leading scorer Collin Sexton, who was ejected with 6:11 remaining in the period.
Durant originally was called for a shooting foul, but Nash challenged the call. Replays clearly showed Sexton throwing a vicious left elbow at Durant’s face while driving to the basket. That stretch ended with a Nic Claxton dunk for a 97-72 lead.
As a result of the third-quarter takeover, the Nets rested starters Durant, Irving and Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter. Durant totaled 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds and a team-high 13 assists to top seven Nets in double figures. Irving added 17 points and became the ninth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range and 90% from the foul line.
Durant, who is one of the previous eight to do it, finished just five missed free throws away from making he and Irving the first teammates to reach the 50/40/90 plateau in the same season.
Commenting on Irving’s performance, Durant said, "Phenomenal season from Ky. He’s a guy who can get it from anywhere on the floor at any time [and] at that size [it's] remarkable. Point guards that get 50/40/90 is just so much more impressive to me, seeing Ky, Steph [Curry], Steve [Nash] do it. So I’m very happy for Kyrie, and I’m sure this won’t be his last time."
Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade each led the Cavs (22-50) with 18 points, Damyean Dotson added 17 and Sexton had 16.
The Nets started hot in building a 17-point first-quarter lead, but the highlight was when they ended the half with a 10-5 burst that included a finishing flourish of a forced turnover, a behind-the-back downcourt pass from Griffin to Irving, who fed Mike James, who tossed a lob off the backboard to Durant for a spectacular dunk and a 67-56 halftime lead.
"It happened so fast, I don’t think we forced anything," Durant said. "Those are usually the best plays, when it organically happens. I’m excited I was a part of it . . . I’m glad we gave our fans a show."
James was thrilled Durant caught his pass off the glass. "My instinct was to throw it off the glass, but I was nervous," James said. "If it would have been bad, I think my Nets career would have been over, but Kev caught it and it worked."