The party at Barclays Center began two minutes into the second quarter of the Nets’ wire-to-wire, 139-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.
Yuta Watanabe pulled up for a contested free throw line jumper that bounced off back iron into the air. That’s when Kyrie Irving beat Spurs center Zach Collins in a foot race from the left wing outside the three-point line to the rim and put-back Watanabe’s miss with a one-handed dunk that brought every fan in Barclays Center to their feet.
Ben Simmons said Irving’s dunk felt like a game of NBA 2K23: “I didn’t know he could do that,” he said.
Irving joked that he’s tired of teammates downplaying his athleticism.
“On a serious note I’m glad I can have those type of plays at times to galvanize the group. Glad it went in. Good timing,” he said. “I’ve been working on my body for the last year and a half two years especially recovering from that traumatic ankle injury I had during the 2021 playoffs. I just felt like I didn’t have my feet underneath me at the end of last season, so coming into this season, I definitely put an emphasis on being more on my toes and getting stronger and my foundational base.”
Gregg Popovich immediately called a timeout, but the Nets had already begun celebrating Irving’s dunk, a moment that encapsulated the mood of an organization now rolling into the New Year after the team extended its winning streak to 12 games Monday night.
Watanabe’s hands were behind his head while backpedaling on defense as if he couldn’t believe what he had seen. Kevin Durant, who was on the bench, jumped out of his chair and ran up the sidelines. Both Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe rushed baseline from the bench while Irving flexed in the direction of his teammates. Royce O’Neale, a late scratch due to a non-COVID related illness, tweeted a response that could speak for most in the building.
“Nahhhhhhh Ky ain’t just do that,” O’Neale posted with a bunch of exhaling face emojis. “Omg.”
And after directing some words at his bench, Irving walked near the scorer’s table and gestured towards the crowd, holding one arm up and motioning his pointer finger down.
“This is my city,” said Irving, a New Jersey native, to the fans in the arena.
The lights at Barclays Center went dark then fluttered after Popovich’s timeout, as if a party had commenced. Actually, the Nets have been in a groove since Jacque Vaughn took over as head coach. They remain the hottest team in all of basketball, now 23-7 with Vaughn as coach and winners of all but one of their last 17 games.
“Probably a big smile on my face [after Irving’s putback],” Vaughn said postgame. “We actually just replayed it right there to the group. We talked about it, about celebrating each other and for him to have a dunk and our guys appreciate and enjoy it and really cheer him on is pretty cool.”
Wins like the one they secured against the Spurs Monday night are why the Nets now rank ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference standings. The Nets were, at one point, -1000 favorites to beat the rebuilding Spurs entering 2023. The Nets of old, however, made it a practice to play down to the level of their competition.
No such thing has happened this year, at least not since Vaughn replaced Steve Nash as head coach seven games into the season. The Nets have become a team that gets up and plays hard, no matter who’s on the other side of the floor — and no matter who’s in or out of Brooklyn’s rotation for whatever reason.
Irving’s putback dunk accounted for just two of the 27 points he tallied on the night, including 21 in the first half alone. He shot four-of-five from downtown and 11-of-14 from the field before slowing it down in the third quarter. On one possession, he trailed Ben Simmons on a fast break, and Simmons found him with a leading bounce pass for a walk-in three. Simmons tallied nine assists in the opening two periods as well, matching Durant for most assists in any half of any Nets game this season.
Durant finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field to go with 11 assists. He received an ovation for passing Tim Duncan for 15th place on the NBA’s all-time leading scorers list, though he did so during Brooklyn’s three-game road trip. Seth Curry started in place of O’Neale and hit four threes for 16 points, and Joe Harris played in his first game after missing four with a sore left knee. Harris played 16 minutes off the bench and finished with eight points.
Monday’s victory marked the largest margin of victory for the Nets against the Spurs since their 26-point win over San Antonio in 1993. The Nets now hit the road to take on a tougher opponent, with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls waiting in the Windy City on Wednesday.