TORONTO — The Raptors weren’t coy about the script they planned to follow Wednesday evening — not that having only 10 available players is conducive to maintaining a sense of mystery, anyway. So, after seeing a depleted 76ers team beat the Nets behind offensive rebounding and second-chance points the day before, coach Nick Nurse announced before the game that they’d try to do that, too.
“But I imagine they’re probably putting the focus on that, and I also imagine they’re probably pretty [ticked] off with the results last night,” Nurse added. “We should get a very valiant effort from them tonight.”
Nurse turned out to be half right.
After squandering an early double-digit lead, Kyrie Irving’s electric third quarter helped save the Nets from yet another miserable day on the road, as they beat a Raptors team missing three starters and six rotational players, 112-98 at Scotiabank Arena. They’re now 7-5 in the Jacque Vaughn era, and 9-10 overall, meaning their date with the Pacers Friday will signal a chance at .500 for the first time this season. Going into Wednesday, the Nets had the seventh-best defensive rating in the league since Vaughn took over on Nov. 1.
“It’s interesting,” Vaughn said. “Pretty slow first half and part of that was me conserving [Irving], knowing that we would have minutes in that second half. And it doesn't take too much. He's gifted, talented and can score on any court. Got a couple go his way and once that happens off you go.”
Down by one a few seconds into the third, Nic Claxton’s dunk kicked off an 18-4 run where Irving scored nine of his game-high 29 points. Irving, who was held to just three points in a little more than 11 minutes in the first half, scored 19 in a third quarter in which the Nets outscored the Raptors 39-25. It matched their highest point total in any quarter this season.
“Just playing in the flow,” Irving said. “Everything's waiting for opportunities, letting the game come to me, and just trusting that we were just going to make the right basketball players out there for one another.”
That, along with a strong effort from Royce O’Neale (15 points, four steals, seven assists) and another complete performance by Ben Simmons helped the Nets take advantage of a team playing without Fred VanVleet (illness) and Scottie Barnes (knee). Simmons had 14 points, two blocks, three steals and six assists while Claxton added 14 points and 12 rebounds marking his sixth double-double of the season (he had five double-doubles combined over his first three seasons).
Kevin Durant (12 points), meanwhile, continued his climb up the history books with 26,074 points, surpassing Kevin Garnett for 18th all time.
The Nets led by as many as 15 in the first quarter before a complete defensive breakdown allowed the undermanned Raptors (9-9) to claw their way to within 52-51 at halftime despite being held to 35.3% from the floor. The Nets committed 14 turnovers for 13 points, were out-hustled on offensive rebounds 11-3, and were outscored 22-4 on second-chance points.
Jeff Dowtin Jr. hit a three with 27 seconds left in the first quarter, igniting a 16-0 run that gave the Raptors the brief 39-38 lead with 9:03 left in the second. The Nets went 0-for-6 during that stretch. It looked, at least for a time, like a spot-on repeat of Tuesday night’s loss, where the Nets were bested by a Philadelphia team playing without Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. The Raptors, though, shot only 4-for-22 from the perimeter in the first half, allowing a dejected-looking Nets team to trudge to their locker room and regroup at the break.
"It really was a standard that we have to have for each other," Vaughn said of not letting their guard down. "We talked a little bit about it — it’s finishing plays. You didn’t see as many breakdowns at the end of plays tonight, the concentration level. A big piece of that is just holding each other to a higher standard and I thought from the beginning of the game, you saw a lot more talk from each other, a lot more communication and a lot more demand of each other, which was great to see.”