As Yuta Watanabe’s midrange jumper caromed off the back of the rim, Kyrie Irving sped in from the left elbow, leaped and delivered a one-handed slam that electrified Barclays Center.
Watanabe giddily put his hands on his head. Kevin Durant erupted from the bench. Nic Claxton appeared to be near hyperventilation.
It’s not just that the Nets earned their 12th straight victory in a 139-103 romp over the rebuilding Spurs on Monday. And it’s not that a putback dunk by Irving is so rare that players were moved to embrace on the sideline.
It’s also that these Nets — the ones who ESPN analyst Jay Williams called “the most unlikable team maybe in the history of the NBA” in November — are something that they haven’t been for a very, very long time.
The Nets are fun. If the roar at a packed Barclays is any indication, they might even be becoming likable.
“I’m like this close to getting tired of people downplaying my athleticism at times in that locker room,” Irving joked about the oversized reaction to his dunk. “It’s funny to make the young guys happy and smiling like that when you surprise them.”
But then there’s the serious part. Irving saw earlier in the season that he was among the worst on the team at boxing out, and his dedication to defense and playing a more complete game is a greater indication of what the Nets are trying to accomplish.
“I think we’ve always kind of wanted to have that chemistry,” Ben Simmons said. “I think obviously it takes time. It’s a new kind of team, new coach. We’re just enjoying it. We’re trying to win, rack these games up and have fun.”
Irving shot 11-for-14 from the field, scored 27 points and had eight rebounds in a little over 28 minutes. Durant had 25 points and 11 assists. The Nets shot 62.4% from the floor, scored 24 points off 18 turnovers and had 32 assists. It was their largest margin of victory against the Spurs in franchise history. It’s the longest winning streak in the league this season and their fifth straight home win.
Afterward, there were cheers coming from the locker room. “We actually just replayed it right there to the group,” Jacque Vaughn said of the dunk. “We talked about it, about celebrating each other and for him to have a dunk and our guys appreciate and enjoy it and really cheer him on is pretty cool.”
The Nets’ domination was systematic and thorough: They led by as many as 17 in the first quarter and never trailed, taking a 74-47 lead into halftime. Irving, whose dunk came with 8:52 left in the second quarter, shot 9-for-10 in the first half and had 21 points and eight rebounds. Simmons had all nine of his assists in the first half — matching the most in one half by any Nets player this season.
The winning streak is two shy of the franchise record. This, coming off a month in which the team was first in offensive rating and made steady strides on the defensive end, which so often victimized them in the early weeks.
The Nets have won 15 of their last 16 and have gone from 10th place in late November to just one game in the loss column behind the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics.
Vaughn has been a point of stability for what had been a highly unstable franchise. It’s something he said he learned when he was Gregg Popovich’s assistant with the Spurs from 2010-12.
“Hopefully this is going to be a group that it doesn’t matter what the situation is, whether it’s the end of the year versus Charlotte, the beginning of the year versus San Antonio,” Vaughn said. “We show up. We play. Whoever’s going to play, we hoop out.”