The NBA's best offensive team played the best defensive team Thursday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and contrary to conventional wisdom, it was the Nets’ firepower that dominated in a runaway 109-98 victory in which they led by as much as 25 on the way to their season-high fifth straight win.
The Nets had a chance to become the first team in NBA history to make at least 20 three-pointers in three straight games. By the end of the third quarter, they had a 16-point lead, had made 16 of 31 three-pointers and had done a solid defensive job against everyone not named LeBron James.
They put together a 9-0 burst to open the fourth quarter, taking their biggest lead at 99-74 with 9:20 left on Joe Harris' three-pointer, their 17th of the game. However, they managed only a 2-for-8 effort from three-point range in the final period to finish 18-for-39 for the game (46.2%) compared to an 8-for-30 effort (26.7%) by the Lakers.
Asked if a road win over the defending NBA champions represents a benchmark of sorts for the Nets, Kyrie Irving said, "It was fun. Like I said, you don’t really get a chance to do it often in the regular season, playing against the defending champs or playing against teams you’ll see on the West Coast eventually if they make it to the Finals. So we’re on this West Coast trip and we just want to take advantage of seeing where we stand as a team. We’ll talk about it and we’ll move forward, but it’s not anything bigger than that. It’s still the regular season, but it was a fun game."
James led the Lakers (22-8) with 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists but didn’t get much help on the offensive end.
James Harden led the Nets (19-12) with 23 points and 11 assists. Harris scored 21, including a 6-for-7 performance from three-point range. Irving added 16 points and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot had 15 on 5-for-8 three-point shooting.
Describing the advantage of playing along superstars such as Harden and Irving, Harris said, "Playing with those guys, they’re unbelievable at all three levels, facilitating and creating shots for guys like myself. It just makes the game a whole lot easier. When the ball’s coming to you, more likely than not, you’ve got space."
The defending champion Lakers came into the game as the second-place team in the Western Conference and the Nets were second in the Eastern Conference, but given the star-studded cast on each roster, many commentators have projected the two teams as the favorites to meet in the NBA Finals.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before the game that he planned to "scheme it up" much the way he would for a playoff game, but Nets counterpart Steve Nash wasn’t prepared to go that far. "For us, everything’s so new still that we’re trying to still kind of double down on our basic principles," he said.
"They have a little bit more of that luxury because they’ve been doing this together for a little bit more time, they’ve had so much success that breeds confidence and they have more versatility because of that collective experience. Hopefully we can become more versatile down the road."
The Lakers were without star center Anthony Davis, who is out indefinitely with a serious ankle injury, but Nets superstar Kevin Durant also missed his third straight game with a left hamstring strain.
The Nets were coming off games in which they made 27 three-pointers in Sacramento and then 20 in Phoenix, marking the first time in franchise history they had at least 20 threes in back-to-back games. They came out on fire from deep again, knocking down five three-pointers, including a trio by Luwawu-Cabarrot in a 30-12 run that spanned the end of the first period into the second to build a 40-28 lead.
Later in the second quarter, Harris hit three straight threes followed by another from Jeff Green during a 14-4 run that gave the Nets a 60-41 lead. But James responded with seven points in a 12-2 burst that helped bring the Lakers within 64-53 at halftime. At that point, the Nets had hit 11 of 21 three-point attempts compared to a 4-for-14 effort by the Lakers.
James scored eight points in another 10-2 Lakers surge to cut their deficit to nine points, but the Nets heated up from three again as Luwawu-Cabarrot hit a pair of threes and Landry Shamet added another in a 15-4 run to give the Nets an 84-64 lead after James went to the bench. That margin settled at 90-74 heading to the final period.