In a game featuring Nets superstars Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant, the best player on the floor in the second overtime period was Cavaliers third-year pro Collin Sexton.
Sexton nailed four 3-pointers in quick succession to guide Cleveland to a 147-135 win.
That’s not how Wednesday night was supposed to go down for Brooklyn after the team traded for Harden last week and Irving returned from a mysterious two-week absence. But while the Nets’ stretches of ineptitude backed up concerns about their defense following the Harden deal, their moments of brilliance should perhaps be the primary takeaway from the defeat. Brooklyn recovered from a 14-point deficit late in the third quarter to send the contest beyond regulation, at times using breathtaking passing at tempo to unlock openings.
Irving, Harden and Durant combined to net 96 points on an efficient 49.3 percent shooting clip from the field. If not for a once-a-season type of explosion from Sexton, coach Steve Nash’s squad would have likely escaped with a victory.
And mere presence of their enigmatic point guard should offer the Nets their greatest hope of cohesion moving forward.
“I’m just excited for the future,” said Irving, who spent the previous seven games away from the team for personal reasons.
Four minutes into his return to basketball, Irving acknowledged the sparse crowd of about 2,000 gathered at Quicken Loans Arena and pointed to his ring finger. The venue had just given him a tribute video recounting his crowning achievement with the organization: A 2016 NBA championship won with the help of his iconic jumper over Stephen Curry. Fans offered a standing ovation.
That the Nets’ third-best player is worthy of emotional tribute videos is a testament to their absurd talent.
Another reminder of their abilities came soon after when Harden accelerated up the floor flanked by Irving to his left and Durant to his right on a 3-on-1 fast break. Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman was petrified, not knowing which all-time great shot creator to guard. He chose Harden. Harden chose Irving. Irving chose a delicious scoop off the window for two points.
These were the sequences in which everything seemed obvious about the roster. How could the group not become great? Name the sports teams that have ever failed because of too many good players. Too many Hall of Famers. Too many centerpieces of worldwide brand campaigns.
The third quarter, though, seemingly poked holes through what general manager Sean Marks had done in shipping out big man Jarrett Allen, forward Taurean Prince, sixth-man extraordinaire Caris LeVert and so many future first-rounders for Harden. With DeAndre Jordan off the floor, the Nets struggled defending the interior. At the same time, they managed to neglect assignments along the perimeter. Even as their own offensive ball movement looked good enough, the lack of stops at the other end were concerning.
“Look, this was the first night when we’ve had everyone on the floor together,” coach Steve Nash told reporters. “This is going to be a process that takes the entire year.”
The process can only work if everyone participates.
Irving not only appearing but also scoring 37 points following his prolonged stretch away from teammates made it easier to imagine everything coming together, the glimpses shown Wednesday becoming more and more frequent until a Finals contender is born.
The Duke product, whose interest in his sport has been questioned by some people of late, showed plenty of emotion on the court as the game progressed. When he called for a pass in the corner from Durant in the fourth quarter and didn’t get it, he fist-pumped anyway when Durant drained a midrange jumper. When he was whistled for an offensive foul with 1.5 seconds left in regulation — a ruling later reversed — he reacted forcefully toward the nearest official.
Irving was the player Brooklyn needs him to be if it wants to get things figured out ahead of the playoffs.
“Two OTs in your first game back?” Irving asked rhetorically after the game. “You got to love NBA basketball, bro.”
The Nets sure hope he does.