The Nets’ first four games were the Kyrie Irving Show — and three disappointing losses.
But Friday was an ensemble cast, and by far Brooklyn’s best performance of the season. They had a balanced offense, stout defense, and a 123-116 win over Houston before a sellout crowd of 17,732 at Barclays Center and a national TV audience.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook came in as a high-scoring duo, the former leading Irving for the scoring race. But Irving was happy to let Harden win that fight while he won the war, finally getting help on both ends from his teammates.
“I think he’s making great decisions, I really do,” Kenny Atkinson said of Irving. “Right now, he’s making the right play probably moreso than anybody on the team right now. He’s really making the right reads.
“Our issues have been with other guys on the team making the right reads, so he’s in a really good place. His offense has been really good. The group around him can pick it up and I know we’ve got some guys that can play better than they are right now.”
Taurean Prince led the Nets with 27 points and a career-high twelve rebounds, while Caris LeVert added 25 points. Irving had 22 points and a team-high ten assists, and Joe Harris and Garrett Temple also cracked double-figures. And the Nets held Houston to 41.4 percent shooting, and just 12-of-48 from 3-point range.
The Nets jumped ahead 23-15 on a Prince 3-pointer with 4:29 left in the first quarter, but then fell into disarray.
The Nets (2-3) committed ten turnovers in the first quarter, and fell behind 35-24 to start the second. Westbrook’s fadeaway to open the quarter left them in an 11-point hole. But they dug their out by digging down.
The Nets stormed back with a 29-10 run. And most encouraging, this wasn’t just the Irving show. This was a complete comeback.
“There were a couple of times where we came down and we were probably a little bit too reliant on Kyrie to make a play or Spencer [Dinwiddie] to make a play or Caris to make a play,” Harris said. “It’s a collective effort where we have to make everybody’s job easier and [sometimes] it was we were kind of standing around watching, honestly, and just hoping that those guys would make plays.”
Temple not only provided grit and steel, but at least slowed Harden — who had a game-high 36. LeVert started getting hot and getting into the lane. And the Nets played defense like they haven’t at any point so far this season.
By the time LeVert hit a driving floater with 1:22 left in the half, the Nets had blitzed their way to a 59-55 edge. They led by two going into the break, after a first half where they shot 56.1 percent, but more importantly held Houston to 41.2 percent shooting — including 7 of 23 from downtown.
The Nets kept up the defensive pressure in the third, when they held Harden and Westbrook (27 points) to nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. They padded their cushion to 13 on Dinwiddie’s floating jumper, and Temple’s straight-on 3 made it 93-78.
Brooklyn saw the Rockets claw within 109-103 on Harden’s back-to-back buckets, and Danuel House Jr. pulled Houston within 111-106 on a 3-pointer with 3:50 remaining. But Prince sealed it on a 3-pointer to make it 114-106 with two minutes left, and Irving’s 3 padded the lead to nine and the Nets held on from there.
“We lost eight guys from our rotation last year that helped us get to the playoffs. That’s a lot. We have three new starters and we’re still working through getting on the same page,” Atkinson said. “You say, well, that’s your job, to get it done. And we’re working towards that.
“We’re not there yet. Hopefully with time, a little more practice time, little more film, little more game reps, we’ll get there. I know we’ll get there … I feel good about the buy-in from the new guys. It’s just getting that chemistry where it needs to be. It’s a matter of time.”