“If Kyrie and KD average 30 and 35 points per game, that’s only 65 points. Where are the rest of the points going to come from?”
I heard some version of this take several times before the start of the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics. It was as if people genuinely believed that if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were to play some of the best basketball of their lives, the seven to nine other NBA players on the Nets’ roster weren’t capable of walking up a staircase and placing the ball in the rim.
In actuality, the Nets’ role players are the reason that this series has been competitive at all. Brooklyn is down 3-0 to the Celtics and are likely going to lose this series either on Monday or Wednesday. However, as Durant is having his worst playoff set since his rookie year, 2010 — when the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games — it has been the role players who have picked up the slack for the Nets, while Durant and Irving have not been able to finish the job late in the game.
Irving was spectacular in Game 1 against the Celtics. He attacked all of the hostility — regardless of what he wanted to call it — in TD Garden and was unstoppable for nearly the entire game, scoring 39 points on 60/60/100 shooting splits. Still, with Durant scoring 23 points while shooting only 38 percent from the field as the Celtics rushed him with pressure defense all day, the rest of the Nets’ 114 points had to come from somewhere.
The key contributors in this game were Goran Dragić and Nic Claxton. They combined for 27 points on 63.1 percent shooting. While Andre Drummond has started every game for the Nets this series — and also played well in Game 1 — it was Claxton who manned the paint for more than 30 minutes. He did damage down there, with eight rebounds and three blocks to go along with his 13 points. Claxton has been a force all series, and Steve Nash’s decision not to start him is one of the many criticisms he has received for his coaching in this first round.
Dragić is a grizzled veteran at point guard. The 35-year-old, one-time all-star has played most of his playoff ball with the Miami Heat. The Nets picked him up, after he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, and bought out of his contract. In Game 1 against Boston, Dragić came off the bench as a steadying force for the Nets immediately, as well as another creator off of the dribble — something that some believed the Nets didn’t have on their roster after Durant and Irvng. Dragić gave them 26 necessary minutes in Game 1, and has been a dependable third ball-handling threat in each game — though he questionably only played eight minutes yesterday.
The Nets’ best player in this series has been Bruce Brown. The 25-year-old forward averaged 24.6 minutes per game this season. In this first-round series he has averaged 36 and a half minutes per game. His energy and defense was much needed by the Nets in Game 1, but in Game 2 and 3 he has outperformed what anyone could have reasonably expected from his nine points per game this season.
He has set personal playoff-career highs in consecutive games. As Irving’s performance crashed back to earth in Game 2 with 10 points on 30.8 percent shooting, and Durant having to live at the free throw line to score 27 points because he shot an unbelievably awful 23.5 percent from the field, Brown tallied 23 points, eight rebounds, and four assists on 66.7/75/100 shooting splits. Also, his defense helped hold both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum under 25 points, and Tatum to 19 points on 31.3 percent from the field. Dragić was again strong, even though he had no assists, with 18 points on 57.1 percent shooting and a gimpy Seth Curry gave the Nets four 3-pointers and 16 points.
Brown led the way again yesterday with his new playoff-career high 26 points. Not only did he lead the Nets in scoring, he led them in field-goal attempts with 19 and played 40 minutes while still shooting 52.6 percent from the field. Durant, one of the best scorers in NBA history, only managed 11 field-goal attempts in a must-win game.
It was a desperate effort by the Nets to pull out a win at home, with Patty Mills having his best game of the series making four out of five 3-pointers, Steve Nash even put in Blake Griffin for a few minutes in the fourth quarter. Griffin made consecutive threes and gave them stout defense. None of it mattered, in the fourth they couldn’t reduce the deficit under five points.
Even if the Nets get swept by the Celtics, as a team they should be proud. As poorly as Durant and Irving have played for most of this series — much credit to the Celtics defense for that — the players who were maligned going into this series have kept the Nets in all three games. Not bad for players who some talked about as if they wouldn’t be able to score a point in this series.