It’s like a water weight on the Nets’ shoulders magically evaporated overnight.
It was a homecoming party for superstar forward Kevin Durant, who continued his march up the NBA’s all-time leading scorer’s list with yet another night to remember: In his hometown of Washington, D.C., Durant claimed Wizards’ C Daniel Gafford’s ankles with a crossover flurry that sent Gafford into a full split.
That play resulted in one of many field goals for Durant, who powered the Nets to a dominant 128-86 victory over the Wizards on Friday. It was the largest margin of defeat at home in Wizards’ history.
It also sent the entire Capital One Arena into a frenzy, including a Nets bench that collectively leaped into the air, some running away and others mimicking Gafford’s slip-’n-slide.
With Kyrie Irving away from the team — suspended a minimum of five games for posting antisemitic material on his social media channels — and with Ben Simmons (left knee soreness) back in Brooklyn rehabbing, the Nets played freely.
The ball hopped. The defense swarmed. The intensity was high, and the smiles were wide.
The victory was a breath of fresh for a Nets team that, entering the night, had lost five of their last six games.
And entering the night, the Nets were embroiled in one too many controversies for a franchise that touted its once-vaunted culture to attract the stars to Brooklyn in the first place.
Irving’s antisemitic controversy aside, the Nets also have a Simmons problem — he is clearly not fully rehabbed from offseason back surgery, but the best version of this team plays him heavy minutes at both ends of the floor. They are in-between head coaches with Jacque Vaughn serving as interim for the recently dismissed Steve Nash.
Plus there’s more controversy looming with Ime Udoka, the ex-Nets assistant turned front-runner to replace Nash who led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals last season — only for the Celtics to suspend him an entire season for violating team policies with an intimate relationship with a team staffer.
What the Nets needed most was a break — a break from all the non-basketball drama that plagued this team. It became clear, as Irving shot 2-of-12 from the field for just four points in Brooklyn’s last loss to the Chicago Bulls, that the off-court issues seeped into the locker room, even though Durant said it hadn’t.
And a break the Nets got in the form of their most convincing victory of the early season, a victory that could shift momentum in Brooklyn’s favor as they travel to Charlotte against a shorthanded Hornets team for the second game of a back-to-back on Saturday.
Friday night was the night the Nets showed they are capable of playing basketball the way it has been expected.
Durant finished with 28 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, one shy of his first triple-double of the 2022-23 season. His night was jump-started by an unusual suspect who once wore blue and orange for the Knicks.
Durant and Wizards forward Kristaps Porzingis jawed back and forth with one another in the first quarter, with Durant silencing Porzingis after the two argued at the foul line. The Nets went on a 21-10 run to create separation with the Wizards after the confrontation.
They never looked back. Brooklyn’s lead ballooned as large as 41 in the fourth quarter.
Nic Claxton added 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, and Royce O’Neale pitched in with 13 points and a career-high eight assists of his own.
Edmond Sumner started in place of the suspended Irving and put pressure on the rim to create openings that allowed the Nets to swing the ball to an open shooter. The Nets as a team tallied 32 assists and shot 14-of-28 (50%) from downtown.
Plus the Nets got their most impactful contribution from second-year guard Cam Thomas, the likely suspect to erupt for a quality game as the scorer buried in the depth chart at Irving’s position.
Thomas finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field and two-of-four shooting from downtown. He dished six assists and registered zero turnovers. He played the game of cat-and-mouse with Durant perfectly. In the minutes they shared, Thomas was ready to either shoot or make a play when the Wizards sent the double at Durant on the dribble.
The Nets outscored the Wizards by 36 in Thomas’ minutes on the floor. He had only appeared in three of their first eight games of the season entering the night: In two of those games, he tallied one minute. In the other, he played extended garbage time.
Now, the challenge for the Nets lies in bottling Friday’s effort and translating it to Saturday’s matchup against a young, energetic Charlotte Hornets team. For at least one night, however, this team can enjoy a hard-earned victory. They haven’t come easily, and this team needed one.