The Brooklyn Nets traveled across the country last night to do half the lifting in a potential NBA Finals preview against the Los Angeles Lakers. Steve Nash watched and sort of coached his team to a statement victory, blowing the doors off an Anthony Davis-less side completely overwhelmed on both ends of the court. It's simultaneously easy and irresponsible to divine great meaning from the 109-98 final.
Let's do both, beginning with the minimizing. These Lakers, though they sport a vastly improved supporting cast than the one surrounding James and Davis during this summer's title run, are not able to overcome the loss of a do-everything center. On any given night and certainly not in a seven-game series. As with any leg injury, there's a chance Davis' rehabilitation hits a snag and the problems persist into the playoffs. If so, they'll have larger problems than whatever side comes out of the Eastern portion of the bracket.
No reasonable person would consider Thursday night's test the true measuring stick. And yet, the Nets did everything they could to prove that, if they want to, they're fit to win it all by any metric, quantifiable or otherwise.
This was the fifth consecutive victory, running Brooklyn's record to 19-12, which good for second in the conference behind Philadelphia. We could very well be looking at the stretch where things began to gel and click for a team with three superstars and only one basketball. A moment where disinterest in competing on the defensive end of the court became more unusual and greater effort more observable.
The NBA has become a study in resource and energy management. Negotiating three of the best basketball players in the world — all with unique and somewhat challenging personalities and injury history — is no small feat. Logic dictated that the Nets would always be following the model of some classic Tom Izzo teams: early struggles before putting it all together just as the highest-leverage challenges present themselves.
And look, we've all seen the frayed edges here. Brooklyn is 28th in scoring defense and 25th in defensive efficiency. That's not good enough to win a championship. Unless, of course, you have three elite scoring threats who can monopolize the ball and overcome lackluster resistance. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Harden-Durant-Irving trio is guiding the NBA's best offense, both in raw total and efficiency. And there's absolutely nothing to suggest that will cease to the be case barring a significant injury.
If the Nets somehow motivate themselves to hold teams like the Lakers under 100 points with regularity, they won't only breeze to the top seed in the East, they'll breeze to the finals and to an ultimate championship. Scoff if you want, but something nagging in the back of my mind keeps cropping up.
What can the Brooklyn Nets look like when they are fully locked in? If they improve their defense and are giving 100 percent, 100 percent of the time?
Through that lens, it seems their biggest obstacle going forward is themselves.