After fashioning a two-month stretch in which they went 22-4, the Nets lately have struggled with a 5-4 record in the last nine games. Not coincidentally, James Harden missed all nine and Kevin Durant sat out five, with the exception of a four-minute stint in a loss at Miami before removing himself with a thigh injury.
But with a sweep of two home games against the Pelicans and Suns and the magnificent 33-point return of Durant in the latter contest, it seems the Nets have righted themselves. They lead the Eastern Conference with a 41-20 record, one game ahead of the 76ers (40-21), who had lost four straight before winning Monday night and are battling injuries to key players.
The Nets’ win over the Suns gave them an NBA-best 20-6 record against the Western Conference.
Considering the Suns (43-18) are second in the Western Conference, it was a very impressive win. The Nets’ .769 percentage against the West is the best for an East team since the 2012-13 Heat (.833).
Asked if he regarded the Suns game as a measuring stick or an ordinary regular-season game, Durant said, "Just another game."
But in pointed fashion, he added: "They’re fresh on the scene as an elite team. This is pretty new to them. We wanted to gauge and take that physicality that they bring, the toughness, that quickness that they bring. But that’s all it was. Just another day at the office."
Durant downplayed the significance of the win because the Nets have championship aspirations and want to set a high standard against every opponent. Still, the Suns and Nets both are legitimate title contenders, and it underlined how hard the Nets have fought to maintain their status despite a slew of injuries.
"Phoenix is a great team," Blake Griffin said. "They obviously have played really, really well this season.
"Right now, especially at this point in the season, it’s about working on us. We haven’t all been on the floor together, and we’re coming down the stretch here where we really need to tighten things up. It’s great to get a win against a Western Conference team, but it’s more about how we do it and the things that we execute on."
Now the Nets are entering a tough finishing stretch in which they will play seven of the next eight games on the road. It starts with a game Tuesday night in Tampa against the Raptors (26-35) — who won the two previous meetings against the Nets — followed by a back-to-back set Thursday against the Pacers (29-31) in Indianapolis and home Friday against the Trail Blazers (32-28). Then comes a five-game road trip that begins with two games against the Bucks (37-23) in Milwaukee.
Coach Steve Nash credited the Nets with an outstanding offensive performance against the Suns and said they played effective defense in stretches to create separation.
"Lots to build on, lots of positives," Nash said. "I don’t ever really look at it as far as who we are, where we are. I look at it as, ‘Where are we trying to get to, and how do we build off this?’ "