It figured that the Nets’ first major litmus test for their "super-team" formula would come during their five-game West Coast road trip in mid-February.
Now the Nets’ potential as a legitimate NBA title contender is plain to see. They are 4-0 with one game remaining against the Clippers on Sunday at Staples Center even though Kevin Durant has missed the past three games with a hamstring strain and Kyrie Irving sat out in Phoenix with a sore back as the Nets came back from a 24-point deficit.
The latest feather in the Nets’ cap came in their 109-98 victory over the defending champion Lakers on Thursday night at Staples Center, a game in which they built a 25-point lead.
The Nets not only are leading the league in scoring but lately have found answers on defense. The supporting cast also is learning how to take advantage of the space their superstars create.
"I think we just really focused on making it about us," Irving said when asked about the Nets’ evolution. "You could talk about some guys’ individual greatness on this team, but we just always want to make it about us and how we can control what we can control, and that’s our effort and our attitude and being communicative for one another.
"We want to be a great team. We have a lot of great individuals that can do a lot of great things any given night, and we just want to honor that space and just continue to have fun out there. It’s fun being connected. It’s fun going out there and competing when . . . the whole world is watching. We get a chance to prove it on the biggest stage."
When James Harden first joined the franchise, he coined the humorous phrase "scary hours" to describe the threat the Nets might pose to the rest of the NBA when they all get healthy. Irving said the term is apt because it underlines the title possibility the Nets have right in front of them.
"We know this doesn’t happen often where you get a great collection of guys together that have been prominent guys in their roles on their respective teams and you’ve got guys coming off the bench that are starters for other teams," Irving said after the win over the Lakers. "It makes our jobs a lot easier to just go out there and be ourselves. It is scary out there when other teams are doing their best to stay in the game defensively and we continue to compound more offensive execution.
"It’s just about limiting the guys on the [defensive] end and then having some fun on the offensive end to be able to create that separation and then just feel good about playing well. You’ve got to remove yourself and put the team first."
Referring to injuries that prevented Lakers stars Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder from playing, Irving said the Nets hope to face a healthy Lakers team with everything on the line in the future. Of course, the hope is that Durant also will be healthy and capable of sustaining the form he has shown in his comeback from Achilles tendon surgery.
"Kevin is the type of player where you can kind of plug him in at any junction of the season," Joe Harris said. "We’re grateful that he’s able to be on this road trip with us, and he lends his voice even though he’s not able to play right now. He’s a big contributing factor as to why we’ve been a little more locked in."
For some perspective on what the Nets have achieved, the last time they won four games on an extended West Coast swing was in 2013-14 when a team that included Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson (Brook Lopez was injured) went 4-2. The last time the Nets won five games on a West Coast trip was in 2012, when Williams and Lopez led the way to a 5-3 trip.
Now they can go 5-0 by beating a Clippers team they defeated earlier this season.
Trying to keep the Lakers win in perspective, coach Steve Nash said, "We played a solid game and got a good win on the road, but we’re not getting carried away. It’s just another milestone for us to take another step."
With a smile, he added, "But it also tastes sweet when you go out West and win some games."
Harris on fire
Given all the attention paid to the Nets’ Big 3, premier outside shooter Harris almost seems like a secret weapon. The 2018-19 NBA three-point percentage leader currently ranks No. 1 again at 50.7% and is averaging a career-high 15.1 points.
Harris has been lights out on the Nets’ 4-0 West Coast trip, shooting 62.5% from three-point range (15-for-24) and averaging 18.8 points. He was 6-for-7 from deep for 21 points against the Lakers, but he downplayed any personal satisfaction.
"The stats are the stats," Harris said. "What matters is winning games, trying to play the right way, building on what we’ve done."
As much as Irving, Harden and Durant might create space for him, Harris forces defenses to stay honest because of his driving ability.
"I try to work Joe into our offense as best I can because he’s going to . . . move to open spots," Irving said. "He’s added some dimensions to his game where he’s able to attack the rim and create more opportunities for himself on the perimeter. When you have a great shooter like that driving, it collapses the defense enough to where it gives other guys open shots. We’re just enjoying it."