Coming off their amazing 128-124 victory in Phoenix, a game in which they trailed by 24, and riding a season-high four-game winning streak, the Nets could not have been in a better space mentally when they faced the Lakers on Thursday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Kevin Durant remained on the sideline nursing a hamstring strain, but Kyrie Irving was scheduled to return from a one-game absence for lower-back tightness.
Although Irving, Durant and James Harden still have played only six games together, the win over the Suns was the best sign yet that things are starting to fall into place for the Nets (18-12).
"It’s been a tough season, lots thrown at us," coach Steve Nash said. "To get an unexpected win when we’re down 24 and we’re missing guys, I think it was important for our morale. But playing the Lakers, obviously, is a tremendous challenge.
"We know who they have over there. We know how well they’re coached and what they’ve been able to do in the last year or so. So it’s a great test for us."
In the back of their minds, the Nets would like to believe this game against the defending champions might be a preview of this season’s NBA Finals. The Lakers (22-7) were missing All-Star center Anthony Davis, who is out indefinitely with a serious calf injury, but 36-year-old LeBron James, who is in his 18th NBA season, has been playing at an MVP-caliber level.
"Oh, man, he’s been playing great," Nets backup center Jeff Green said. "I mean, year 18, flying around like he’s doing, as a fan, it’s amazing to watch. Inspirational. People try to say that, because of your age, you’re this or that, and he’s telling people by his play that age is just a number.
"I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s not shocking the way he’s playing, but it’s tremendous to watch. AD is out, but they’re a tough team one through 15. LeBron is going to have the ball mostly, but with Dennis [Schroder] and the way Marc [Gasol] has been hitting shots, Trez [Montrezl Harrell] coming off the bench and making the impact and [Kyle] Kuzma, who has been playing great, it’s going to be a tough task."
Green had 11 of his 18 points against the Suns during the fourth quarter, when the Nets produced 40 points and finished on a 12-0 run. He was part of a second unit that produced big-time, including Tyler Johnson, who scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half. It appears the Nets are developing the depth they need to replace what they lost in the trade for Harden.
"It just feels good to contribute," said Johnson, who was relegated to the end of the bench earlier in the season but lately has seized the opportunity for playing time. "Just being part of a group and having that camaraderie and saying, ‘Hey, whatever it is I can do to help contribute to this win, I’m going to do it.’ I think a lot of guys have adopted that mentality, and now you can see it starting to show."
The Nets’ four-game winning streak began with a much-improved defensive performance in a home win over the Pacers, and that has carried over to road wins over Golden State, Sacramento and Phoenix.
Asked about the importance of playing well against the Lakers, Harden insisted that the Nets are focused on themselves. "Offensively, we’re really, really good," he said. "Defensively, we’re not so great. So we’re working on that whether it’s the Lakers or any other team. We understand the caliber of team we’re playing, but we’re working on ourselves.
"We can beat the Lakers, and it only counts as one win. The more we can build great habits on both ends of the ball and try to do that consistently is the bigger picture for us."