Collin Sexton woke up on Wednesday morning feeling some type of way. I did not speak to Sexton to confirm this, but his play last evening proved it. Sexton led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an unexpected and thrilling overtime win against the powerhouse Brooklyn Nets, spoiling Kyrie Irving's return and the debut of the league's newest Big 3.
Sexton ended up with 42 points. He scored the last 20 of his team's points to secure the win through the fourth quarter and overtime. The Nets had no answer for the young buck and even the combined might of two MVP awards and 18 All-NBA selections could not overcome Sexton.
All that said, weird stuff like this happens during the regular season. The Cavs aren't going to beat the Nets most nights. But Sexton's performance hammered home the big problem the Nets have, and that problem is defense. Of course. A team with James Harden and Irving is never going to be elite defensively, but Sexton will not be the last point guard to put up big numbers on this iteration of Brooklyn's squad.
Sexton didn't even shoot the ball all that well. He had 42 points on 29 shots and made 16 baskets. He only had nine free-throw attempts. He made those shots when they counted, sure, but it was glaring watching the game that the Nets just can't contain anybody at the point of attack.
Scoring guards like Sexton are going to be a recurring thorn in Brooklyn's side. Big scoring wings will be taken on by Kevin Durant, who is a pretty good defender when he wants to be. But the opposing point guard will have a field day with whoever they put on them. Harden isn't quick enough on the perimeter to guard players like Sexton, and Irving has been a revolving door on that end of the court for his entire career. In his prime, Durant could handle anybody, but coming off an Achilles injury, it's worth questioning if he is a lockdown defender on quicker guards.
All that wouldn't be that big of a problem if the Nets had a good defensive center to clean things up when the perimeter defense collapses. Someone like Jarrett Allen, some might say. But Allen was shipped out as a part of the Harden deal. That leaves DeAndre Jordan and Nic Claxton as the only true centers on the roster. Claxton spent almost all of last year in the G-League and has yet to play this season due to injury. Which leaves Jordan as the last line of defense. And that is bad. Very bad.
In his heyday, Jordan was a rock-solid rim protector. He is no longer in his heyday. The man can still jump far higher than someone his size should be able to, but he is incapable of protecting the rim at a consistent level. The sample size for this season is too small for definitive conclusions to be drawn, but Jordan was merely average on defense last year; he had a defensive field goal percentage of 40.6 percent and on average made opponents shoot six percent worse when defending their shot. When he was on the floor with Kyrie Irving last year, the Nets had a defensive rating of 112.2 in 154 minutes. That 112.2 number would have ranked 21st in the NBA last season.
Durant's presence will help. Harden's might offset that. Either way, these Nets are going to struggle to be a middling defensive team. Which is bad for their championship aspirations, because every champion from the last 16 years has ranked top-five in defensive rating in the NBA. That is definitely a trend.
The Nets' firepower is so overwhelming that it would be no surprise if they were the team to buck that trend. But watching Collin Sexton drop 42 was not encouraging. It isn't poised to get much better, either. If they can't handle Sexton, what are they going to do about Kemba Walker or Jayson Tatum or Giannis Antetokounmpo, who all initiate for their respective offenses? It's going to be tough.
Sexton had himself a career night. And Brooklyn needs only be good enough defensively to win plenty of games. But the Nets' inability to hinder Sexton proves they have a lot to figure out before anybody can crown them champs.