The Brooklyn Nets were the winners of the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant sweepstakes in July and are in playoff contention despite getting less than expected from Irving and nothing from Durant.
On Sunday night, the visiting Nets will get a chance to remind the New York Knicks who they landed and how they’re faring without them as the two Big Apple basketball teams clash at Madison Square Garden.
The Nets were off Saturday after winning their second straight game Friday night, when they cruised to a 116-97 win over the visiting Sacramento Kings. The Knicks will be completing a back-to-back set at home after falling to the San Antonio Spurs 111-104 on Saturday night.
The Nets posted their most lopsided win of the year Friday despite being without Durant — who is expected to miss the season while recovering from the torn Achilles he suffered while playing for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June — as well as Irving and shooting guard Caris LeVert. Irving has missed four straight games — and is expected to miss the next three as well — due to a right shoulder injury, while LeVert is in the midst of a multi-week absence due to right-thumb surgery.
“It’s hard having Caris and Kyrie out, they’re two of our best guys,” Nets enter Jarrett Allen said Friday night. “But we know it’s our time to step up. We’ve always had the next-man-up mentality, and we’re showing it now.”
The Nets, who are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, are also showing a renewed focus on defense. Brooklyn has won three of its last four games and allowed 111 points or fewer in each of the victories after giving up fewer than 111 points just twice in the season’s first 11 games.
“We’ve done a better job here lately defensively,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “I think a lot of that is in direct line to how we’ve been offensively as well. When you’re able to get stops, things offensively come a lot easier.”
Nothing seems to come easy this century for the Knicks, who were expected to make a big push for Irving and Durant after clearing salary-cap space with the blockbuster trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in February. But the Plan B hasn’t worked out for New York, which will enter Sunday tied for last in the Eastern Conference with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks seemed to be stirring a bit after a rousing 106-103 win at home over Porzingis and the Mavericks on Nov. 14 and then a 123-105 rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.
But on Saturday the Spurs raced out to a 32-16 first quarter lead and led the Knicks by as many as 28 while snapping an eight-game losing streak, the longest ever endured under 24th-year head coach Gregg Popovich.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Knicks head coach David Fizdale said afterward of the loss. “We were in mud, and they were a desperate team. We got punched in the face.”