What came first, the bonding or the winning?
Victory makes everything better, and with the Nets rolling along as the hottest team in the NBA, there are nothing but smiles in Brooklyn. And after pounding the Magic 129-92 for their eighth straight victory, the longest winning streak in the NBA this season, there were Cheshire cat grins.
“Our energy and our connectivity has been outstanding and we’re getting better in that department every week. You can feel it and see it,” coach Steve Nash said. “A big part of it is our group’s bonding. They’re growing together.
“They’re starting to feel success and roles are shoring up and you can sense it out there that they are having more fun, that they are connected offensively and defensively, that they have a lot more poise together.”
The winning streak is the Nets’ longest since they won 14 in a row in 2006. Most of the current streak has come without Kevin Durant, who missed a sixth straight game, but the Nets (22-12) still outscored the Magic 41-19 in the second quarter and they led by as many as 40 points.
Kyrie Irving, who had 27 points and nine assists, and James Harden, who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, were right at the heart of it. Irving led the way, but it was a comprehensive team performance, nevertheless, the Nets’ balance turning it from a win into a rout.
Six players finished in double-figures for the Nets, including Landry Shamet, who had 19. The Nets shot 53.3 percent from the field and held the Magic to just 40.2 percent overall and 9-for-36 from 3-point range. Other than Nikola Vucevic, who had 28 points, Orlando posed no threat.
“It’s a total team effort,” Irving said. “We just want to stay collectively aligned on the same goal and that’s just to play to a certain level that we can all commit to. We all hold each other accountable and we all want to have that consistency and have fun doing so.
“A lot of smiles with the effort that we put on out there.”
Irving was as upbeat as any Net. He had been painted as a villain in Boston, but Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck recently said on NBC Sports Boston that his team’s struggles this season (it’s 15-17) can directly be traced to the guard’s decision to leave.
“He’s on maybe the best team in the league right now and so that’s that,” Grousbeck said. “That change touched off a lot of stuff because he left, we weren’t maybe able to recruit free agents in the same way, and a bit of a domino effect.”
Clearly happy in Brooklyn, Irving is not only starring, but also winning and leading.
“He’s expressive and he’s passionate. … A lot of people don’t understand him, don’t get exactly where he’s coming from, his mentality, and a lot of people fear what they don’t understand. It’s been great to be around him,” Shamet said.
“He’s going to let you know what he’s seeing, whether it’s good or bad. … Kind of a Mamba mentality, honestly. And I like that, just real confrontational,” Nic Claxton added. “He gets a bad rep sometimes, but he’s a great teammate and a great leader.”
And with Durant out, Irving led the Nets past the Magic and helped them keep pace with the 76ers, remaining just a half-game out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
“What I learned from [playing in Cleveland and Boston] was if you’re not enjoying the journey and not committed the way that you’d like to be committed — and I mean every day, even when you’re tired, when you’re having good days, bad days, you gotta be able to galvanize the group,” Irving said. “And there isn’t one leader. I had to accept that, too.
“I’m grateful to be in this position to be able to set a better example now than I did then. And I take accountability for not necessarily stepping up to the plate or stepping up to the responsibility for my own actions. I had a lot to do with the success and failures of the teams that I was on. I take my role very serious in terms of that, and I’ve been able to learn lessons from that to give to others.”