CLEVELAND — As if catching the defending champion Cavaliers in an angry mood after losing six of their previous eight games wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Nets raised the odds against themselves to an impossible height with their pregame decision to rest healthy Brook Lopez and Caris LeVert on Friday night. Lopez has been their best player this season and rookie first-round pick LeVert arguably has been their second-best player of late.
“It’s just an overall philosophy we have about player health, player care,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “We think of what’s best for the player. They’ll both play tomorrow night.”
Conspiracy theorists might suggest the Nets’ strategy was to have their two best players fresh for Saturday night’s game at Target Center against a 17-29 Timberwolves team and take their chances against the Eastern Conference-leading Cavs. The Nets’ roster really was reduced to 10 because starting power forward Trevor Booker sat out with an illness and Joe Harris (ankle) and Jeremy Lin (hamstring) are injured.
The result was exactly what you would expect. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving totaled 59 points and the Cavaliers dominated the boards on their way to a 124-116 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.
James had 31 points, shot 13-for-18 and had 11 assists, and Irving scored 28, shot 10-for-17 and had six assists. The Cavaliers (31-14) also got double-doubles from Kevin Love (13 points, 14 rebounds) and Tristan Thompson (10 points, 10 rebounds).
The Nets (9-37) had six players in double figures, led by Sean Kilpatrick with 18 points, Bojan Bogdanovic with 17 and Randy Foye with 16, but took a 47-37 pounding on the boards.
Asked if there have been any complications with LeVert’s recovery from foot surgery last February that caused the Nets to rest him twice in three games, Atkinson said, “If you look at his college career and the games he missed there and then all the games he’s played this year in this short period of time, we’re just taking a futuristic approach and keeping his best interests at heart.”
The game was close for two quarters, but it got away from the Nets in the third. James had 10 points in a 26-10 run that pushed the Cavs’ lead to a high of 23 at 86-63, and Irving had 20 points in Cleveland’s 39-point period.
“We competed for 48 minutes,” Atkinson said. “We had a rough third quarter, but LeBron James and Kyrie Irving had something to do with that. The ball was really moving and we played the right way. If we stay with that mentality, we’re going to get better.”
Kilpatrick was happy to regain his form against an opponent like the Cavs. “They’re a great team, and for us to come out and play together was real ly fun,” he said. “The way we shared the ball was really interesting to watch. It was actually a step forward.”