On one side: a raging inferno. A two-man power trip capable of pulverizing opponents with pitch-perfect offensive play, hitting the toughest shots imaginable, serving teammates scoring chances on a silver platter, and looking like the kind of unsolvable fireball that can produce a championship.
On the other: a backfiring engine. A team that stagnates when its celestials aren’t throwing lightning bolts, that commits sloppy turnovers and makes careless mistakes, and that can pivot from dominating to giving up 65 points in a half at the drop of a dime.
Two sides, but the same coin. Ladies and gentlemen, your Brooklyn Nets: the newly minted no. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, and the NBA’s premiere Rorschach test.
The Nets did what everyone expected on Tuesday, beating the wounded Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center, 115-108, in the first game of the NBA’s 2022 play-in tournament. They did it, as everyone expected, on the strength of their offense, shooting 53.6 percent from the floor as a team, dishing 33 assists on 45 made field goals, and torching the Cavs to the tune of 119.8 points per 100 possessions—head and shoulders above the mark that led the NBA during the regular season.
Kyrie Irving didn’t miss his first shot until there were just over 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter; by that point, he’d already made 12. With Irving wreathed in flames, Kevin Durant made peace with doing everything else—drawing defensive attention and moving the ball to set up wide-open shots, cleaning the glass, protecting the rim—and showcasing the all-around game he’s developed on the way to becoming arguably the best basketball player alive.
When the Cavs trapped Irving in the pick-and-roll, Andre Drummond slipped into space, received pocket passes, and threw down dunks. When they tried to force the ball out of Durant’s hands near half court, he kicked it ahead to Bruce Brown, who short-rolled to the free throw line, attacked four-on-three, and made mincemeat out of Cleveland’s back line. And when J.B. Bickerstaff’s team sold out to shut down both the initial action and the counter, Durant was there, waiting to remind them of his inevitability.
Watch the machine operate like that, and you start to wonder how any opponent standing in its way could prosper. But then you look down at the score, and you realize that KD going iso-killer is all that kept Cleveland from making it a two-possession game with just under four minutes to go. And you find yourself wondering why a team with two future Hall of Famers playing out of their minds was having such a hard time putting away an opponent that ended the season losing eight of 11, with the NBA’s no. 20 offense over the final month, and without All-Star center Jarrett Allen, who’s been sidelined for the last five weeks by a fractured finger.
The Cavs gave up 40 points on 23 possessions in the first quarter. They had no answer for Irving, who finished with 34 points on 12-for-15 shooting with 12 assists, or Durant, who added 25 points and 11 assists with five rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. Through three quarters, they’d gotten a combined 16 points on 25 shots from Caris LeVert, Lauri Markkanen, Isaac Okoro, and Cedi Osman—a.k.a., their entire wing rotation.
And yet, thanks to some uninspired Brooklyn play in the second and third quarters, and by the grace of the basketball gods—chiefly a young one named Darius Garland, who picked the Cavs up off the mat by scoring 24 of his team-high 34 points after intermission—Cleveland still had a handful of chances to cut what had once been a 22-point Brooklyn lead to within five in the fourth quarter.
They never could, though; each time they tried, the Nets got a stop or a bucket, keeping the Cavs at arm’s length long enough to make it to the final buzzer, and send Cleveland into an elimination game on Friday against the winner of Wednesday’s 9-vs.-10 matchup between the Hawks and Hornets.
Brooklyn doesn’t have to apologize for that; “survive and advance” is the name of the game this time of year, and Steve Nash’s crew did. Still, though: The Nets gave up 60 points in the paint to a Cavs team without its All-Star center. They needed 42 minutes of phenomenal play from their two superstars on Tuesday, plus a 40-minute near-triple-double from Brown, and centers Drummond and Nic Claxton combining for 29 points and 17 rebounds, just to put away an injury-ravaged side that struggles in the half court and is running on fumes. Durant sat for just six minutes and 21 seconds against the Cavs; the Nets got outscored by nine points. Does that sound like a championship contender to you?
Regardless, it is a playoff team—one that has now earned itself a first-round date with the second-seeded Celtics. It’s a role-reversal rematch of last season’s opening-round series; back then, the Nets were the no. 2 seed. A lot’s changed.
James Harden, who averaged just under 28 and 11 in that series, is in Philadelphia now. His ostensible replacement, Ben Simmons, spent Tuesday in street clothes the color of envy, and hasn’t played an NBA game in nearly 10 months. Joe Harris, who played 35 minutes a night and shot 51.5 percent from 3 in that series, is out for the year. His ostensible replacement, Seth Curry, went scoreless in 33 minutes on Tuesday, and looked way less than 100 percent playing on a balky left ankle that he says has been bothering him for months.
Maybe most importantly: The Celtics aren’t starting Romeo Langford and Tristan Thompson, or relying on 15 minutes of Jabari Parker, anymore. They’re not sputtering into the playoffs; they’re surging, entering the postseason as owners of not only the NBA’s no. 1 defense, but also the East’s best record and the league’s best net rating since January 1.
The Celtics won’t enter Round 1 at full strength, though: Center Robert Williams III, one of the linchpins of the switch-everything scheme that they’ve used to suffocate opposing offenses, continues to rehab after missing the final seven games of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Bruce Brown highlighted the importance of Williams’s injury after Tuesday’s win, telling reporters that with Williams out, the Celtics “have less of a presence in the paint,” and that Brooklyn “can attack Al Horford and [Daniel] Theis,” Williams’s replacement at the 5.
If that sounded to you like a surprisingly matter-of-fact delivery of bulletin-board material to an opponent that’s been one of the NBA’s three best teams for the past three months, you’re not alone. After Brown left the podium, Durant arrived and asked reporters, “What did Bruce Brown say? Someone told me he said something that I don’t like.” After hearing the quote, KD shook his head, dismissed Brown’s assessment as “caffeine pride talking,” and offered his own view on Theis and Horford: “Them two dudes … they can do the same stuff [as Williams]. It ain’t gonna be that easy, I’ll tell you that.”
“The same stuff” isn’t quite true; Durant knows that neither Theis nor Horford is anywhere near the sort of spring-heeled shot-blocking menace that Williams can be. But it sounds like he also knows that, even without Time Lord, the C’s have clamped down at a top-five rate with the quartet of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Horford on the floor—and maybe that, with Theis in Time Lord’s place, Boston has blitzed opponents by more than 33 points-per-100. A Nets team that has to rely on a hobbled Curry, a just-back-from-COVID-protocols Goran Dragic, and rookie Kessler Edwards to survive non-KD minutes could face some tough sledding against an opponent of Boston’s caliber. Come Sunday afternoon, those fans who ended Tuesday chanting about wanting the Celtics might find themselves wishing they’d been more careful what they wished for.
Unless, of course, KD and Kyrie are just going to keep combining for nearly 60 points on 68 percent shooting for the next couple of months. That we can’t completely write that off as a possibility is why so many find it so hard to quit the Nets; that it’s essentially a requirement for this team to win, though, is why so many find it so hard to believe in them. Whether you think the inferno or the backfire matters more, they’re both there; it’s all there, really. Contender or pretender, finalist or fraud: a universe of potential outcomes and interpretations, all there, in black and white.
An earlier version of this piece misstated who the Cavs will play in their second play-in game; they will play the winner of the Hawks-Hornets game.