The thought of facing James Harden and Russell Westbrook seemed a little like a horror story, from the way Nets coach Kenny Atkinson spoke about it. Here was this ferocious two-headed monster — one that changes its shape and its style of attack depending on which one is at the helm — and there was Kyrie Irving, the lonely hero standing in the way of what could have been a 1-4 start.
That was the story going in, at least. Coming out, it’s the Rockets who lived the horror story, one in which they lost a 15-point first-quarter lead and charged back in the fourth before eventually falling to the new-look Nets.
And on this night, at least, it wasn’t just Irving doing the damage. It was Caris LeVert and Garrett Temple and Taurean Prince — you know, the guys the Nets need to start producing if this season is going to be anything more than a long, painful preamble to the Kevin Durant era.
On Friday night at Barclays Center, it translated to a 123-116 win, only the Nets’ second in five games, with a cohesive defensive effort that countered some of the team’s growing pains.
“After watching the [Rockets’ 159-158 win over Washington on Wednesday], it’s like, how do we slow these guys down?” Atkinson said before the game. “Just dealing with those two guys and all their shooters, it’s [a] conundrum. It’s a heck of a challenge. Seems like they’ve found the analytically perfect game.”
But analytically perfect is not perfect-perfect. Harden made it a game in the fourth and the Nets barely were hanging on before Irving hit a corner three with 55.9 seconds left, plus a free throw, for a 118-108 lead.
Prince had a career-high 27 points with 12 rebounds, LeVert scored 25 and Irving had 22 with 10 assists.
Harden led all scorers with 36, though he and Westbrook were held to 3-for-22 shooting from three-point range.
“Against an explosive offensive team, I thought our defense kind of kept us alive,” Atkinson said. “A lot of guys played well, I thought. That’s what we need going forward. We can’t rely on Kyrie every night to be Superman.”
Irving was held scoreless in the first quarter and the rest of the Nets weren’t that inspiring either. They led 23-15 with 4:19 left before the Rockets took off on an 18-1 run to close out the quarter. The Nets committed 10 of their 22 turnovers in the first and LeVert racked up three fouls in the first 11 minutes.
But behind their defense, the Nets managed to turn a 15-point second-quarter deficit into a two-point halftime lead, and they did it with Irving mostly on the bench. Led by LeVert and Temple, the Nets busted out on a 23-6 run. LeVert scored 10 points in that span, including a go-ahead dunk on a feed from Temple. LeVert, who didn’t get his fourth foul until the end of the game, hit a floater with 29 seconds left in the first half to put the Nets up 61-59 at the break.
“This is another great test for us,” Irving said. “We had some tough losses in our first few games. We had a choice where we could come into practice and be angry at each other or panic or do something like that, but for us, we’re still taking time to develop and jell as a team. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s an ongoing process, Atkinson said, and one that will continue in Detroit on Saturday.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “I’ve never seen that to that degree . . . One guy is zigging where another guy is zagging and one guy cuts and we throw it and he doesn’t cut. We’ve got to figure it out because our defense bailed us out tonight, but we’re a long ways away.”