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Robbed of Kevin Durant, the Nets had to make wholesale changes Tuesday night. And they worked like a charm.
Steve Nash swapped out every starter except Kyrie Irving, who gave an All-Star performance in leading a 130-96 slump-busting rout of the Jazz at Barclays Center.
Irving torched the Jazz with 29 points, six rebounds and five assists, but this was a complete bounce-back performance for a Nets team that had lost four of five.
With Durant quarantined because of COVID-19 contact tracing, Nash opted to bring Joe Harris and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot off the bench. He started Jarrett Allen, Bruce Brown and Taurean Prince, had his Nets defending and pushing the pace and doing everything they could to make up for the loss of their star.
And for a night, it worked. Allen had 19 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and blocked Rudy Gobert twice. The Nets shot 55.9 percent from the field, piled up a 68-40 scoring edge in the paint and a 51-42 edge on the glass against one of the NBA’s best rebounding teams.
It added up to a 34-point margin of victory.
“The short answer is you can’t replace Kevin Durant,” Nash said matter-of-factly. “But how will we combat his loss? We’re going to have to play with pace, move the ball, try to make each other better, defensively we’ve got to be locked in.
“As much as I’d like for us to be mistake-less and be perfect defensively, the reality is that we’ve just got to fight and try our best to compete and get as many 50-50 balls and rebounds and do all the little things against a talented team when you’re missing your big gun.”
They did enough little things to pile up a season-high 68 points in the paint, hand out a season-high 31 assists and get a season-high 66 points off the bench. Caris LeVert had 24 of those. Meanwhile, Brown’s contributions were on the other end.
The defensive ace had been buried deep on the bench, having logged just 13 minutes in three brief cameos appearances. But he had six points, six boards, five assists and finished with a plus-20 that was a testament to his defense and energy.
Most fans would say the move to start Allen was beyond long overdue. Despite coming into Tuesday second in the league in offensive rebound percentage and rebound percentage, he hadn’t started a single game this season behind the struggling DeAndre Jordan. That could change after dominating Gobert.
The Nets stormed out of the starting blocks and never looked back.
Irving had a dozen quick points and found Brown cutting for a 20-4 Nets lead. They had hit 9 of 11 shots and held the Jazz to just 2 of 12. It was a harbinger of the kind of night it would become.
A Brooklyn team that had been one of the worst rebounding squads in the entire NBA was dominating both the glass and the paint against the Jazz and Gobert.
The Nets kept increasing their lead by touchdown margins, first 28-7 and then finally 35-14 after one. Irving had 18 first-quarter points on perfect 7 of 7 shooting. But while he did most of the scoring and will get the lion’s share of the glory, this was a comprehensive rout.
In Brown’s first extended duty of the season, he looked the part. There’s a reason he can’t hit a jumper but still started 99 of 132 games the prior two seasons: He’s an elite defender and plus-athlete with a high motor. Tuesday, he not only helped Irving up Brooklyn’s pace, but he at least made Donovan Mitchell work for his game-high 31 points.
And after Jordan picked up four fouls in just four minutes off the bench, fans clamoring for more playing time from Allen finally got it. He dominated his one-on-one matchup with Gobert, helping the Nets take command in the first half and never relinquish it.
So many scenes told the tale of this game.
Like Irving finding Allen with a behind-the-back pass for a thunderous dunk on Gobert. Or the point guard holding his arms aloft anticipating Harris’ open 3, then looking skyward and fist-pumping in homage to Harris’ own celebration.
Or after taking a 63-44 lead at the break — their biggest halftime cushion since March 6 last season vs. the Spurs — Brooklyn tacked on in the third. Allen blocked Gobert not once but twice, then got a basket and foul on the other end. The laconic center gave a rare show of emotion, but it was well-earned.
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