The Nets had top-end talent. Now they’re developing toughness and togetherness.
Brooklyn showed it on a perfect West Coast swing, capped by Sunday’s 112-108 victory over the Clippers at Staples Center.
Owner Joe Tsai — who has a home in nearby La Jolla — was on hand to see firsthand the budding superteam his billions have built. He saw James Harden and Kyrie Irving lead the Nets to a 5-0 road trip that’s the longest undefeated trek in team history — all but one of the wins without Kevin Durant.
His Nets (20-12) have won a league-high six straight to pull within a half-game of first place in the Eastern Conference, with the seeds of these victories sown in a humiliating Feb. 9 defeat in Detroit.
“We had a lot of frustrating losses. We don’t want that to haunt us at the end of the season, so we decided to, as a team, collectively pick it up, each individual,” Harden said. “Once you pick your effort up and you pick your mindset up in a sense of ‘We’re going to go out there and play hard for my teammates,’ good things start to happen. … From top to bottom, guys have bought into that.”
The Nets built a 15-point lead before Kawhi Leonard knotted it at 108-all with 28.6 seconds to play. But DeAndre Jordan tipped in a missed 3 by Irving with 11 seconds left. And two seconds later three-time defending scoring champ Harden (game-high 37 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists) made a game-saving play on defense.
With Harden guarding Leonard, the Clippers star was called for a push-off and an offensive foul. Harden sank both free throws with seven seconds left to ice it.
“We had got our ass kicked a couple times so we were tired of that because of the team we have,” Jordan said. “When we don’t respect the game we can lose to anybody. It was more so a wake-up call.”
The Nets overcame 34 points from Paul George and 29 from Leonard.
Irving had 28 points and eight assists, while Jordan, Bruce Brown and Joe Harris each added 13. The Nets improved to 8-0 versus Western Conference playoff teams, and have been nothing short of stellar since having a collective epiphany after the Detroit loss.
“I went on quote by saying that we looked very average [after Detroit]; everybody took that personally, including myself, and we just used that as motivation and guys came out [since] and played with effort,” Irving said.
“We don’t want to talk a good game and say we’re collectively together and united, and we’re not. You could see it on the floor: We weren’t connected at all, especially going against sub-.500 teams that we have a losing record to. That was embarrassing. So we just want to continue to demand that standard of excellence.”
Harden’s ex-Houston teammate Patrick Beverley tried to get him off his game early, fouling him in transition and getting into it with the Nets star. If anything, it just made Harden more aggressive.
Down 21-15, the Nets went on a 13-1 run to lead 28-22. Brooklyn continued to take control through the third quarter, largely on the strength of its improving defense.
Harris drilled a 3 and then found Irving leaking out downcourt for a fast-break bucket and 69-58 lead with 9:06 left in the third.
The Nets padded the cushion to 94-79 on a Harris 3, but then missed five of their first seven shots in the fourth to let the Clippers back into it. A George 3-pointer capped a 9-0 run and cut the lead to just 96-90 with 6:54 to play. But Harden stemmed the tide, drilling a 3 over George that killed the run.
Brooklyn led 105-99 with 2:50 left when it lost Jeff Green to an injury after a Beverley foul. They saw it cut to a deuce on a Lou Williams 3 with a minute to play, and Jordan’s foul led to Leonard knotting it with 28.6 seconds in regulation.
But Jordan’s tip-in and Harden’s defense ensured there would be no OT.
“We look back to the Detroit game and how poor our application was. That’s not toughness. Mentally, physically, we were a shadow of ourselves,” Steve Nash said. “This last six games, our toughness has been there.”