Kevin Durant has to be home smiling.
The Nets had every reason to lose to a loaded Golden State Warriors team on Sunday night. They had to overcome multiple double-digit deficits. They had to get past Golden State by intentionally fouling their worst free throw shooter. They, of course, still don’t have Durant, the base of their entire offense, who is out with a sprained ACL.
And yet, the Nets still pulled off a 120-116 victory, their second in a row after losing four in a row following Durant’s injury.
It was arguably Brooklyn’s best win of the season.
After scoring a season-high 48 points in a win against the Utah Jazz, Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting from center. Irving also had nine assists and seven rebounds. For the first time in his career, he has three consecutive games of 30 points, five assists and five rebounds.
However, at some point, Nic Claxton and Ben Simmons will have to make free throws under pressure.
The Golden State Warriors made it clear they were going to exploit one of Brooklyn’s biggest weaknesses in Sunday’s matchup between two championship contenders. Two of the Nets’ key starters are terrible free-throw shooters and one of them became an early liability against the Warriors on Sunday.
The Warriors repeatedly sent Claxton to the line as they built a second quarter lead that ballooned to 17. They followed up with Hack-a-Clax as the Nets erased that lead on a 19-5 run in the third quarter and went back to the technique late in the fourth quarter until the two-minute mark, where it becomes illegal to intentionally foul a player who does not have the ball.
It’s a smart game plan, even if the Nets hate it.
Because forAt both ends of the court, Claxton’s regression as a free-throw shooter has been remarkable. After breaking Shaquille O’Neale’s record of 10 missed free throws in a row before the first touchdown in Game 4 of last season’s playoff sweep against Boston, Brooklyn’s starting center is shooting 11% worse from the start. free throw line. He started Sunday night going 1-for-6 from the line for charity before hitting three straight in the fourth quarter to go 6-for-15 from the line.
And when the Nets cut Golden State’s 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to just five with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Warriors attacked Claxton again. He missed both free throws. Head coach Jacque Vaughn decided to keep his starting center in the game for one more possession before substituting for Yuta Watanabe until after two minutes.
It’s crippling given how important Claxton is both offensively and defensively, even more so with Durant out of the rotation. He’s an elite shot blocker, perimeter defender and finisher at the rim, but opposing teams can intentionally foul him to send him to the line, where he has more trouble.
Last season, Claxton shot 58% from the line. This season, he’s shooting 47%, and that average dropped Sunday.
Simmons struggles just as much from the line, though he only averages 1.5 tries per game. He averaged 60% from the line in each of his first four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, but this year he’s shooting just 43% from the line in Brooklyn.
However, Simmons was not the priority for the Warriors on Sunday.
Maybe the Nets can see this as a badge of honor: that the Warriors had to resort to fouling their worst free-throw shooter because playing straight was an even game.
Claxton said after the game that the Warriors didn’t take the Nets seriously because Durant wasn’t on the court. The Nets are showing that they are learning how to win games when their leader is unavailable.
It’s everything Durant ever wanted last season. Maybe these Nets aren’t the same as last year after all.