If Thursday really was a potential NBA Finals preview, the Nets sure hope the real thing goes the same exact way.
Brooklyn cruised to a 109-98 win over LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers in a nationally televised marquee matchup at Staples Center.
The Nets didn’t have Kevin Durant, while the Lakers were without Anthony Davis. But there was plenty of star power and more than enough highlight-reel plays — a few more on the Nets’ ledger, with Brooklyn leading by as many as 25 at one point.
James Harden was sublime with 23 points, a game-high 11 assists and six rebounds, while Kyrie Irving had 16 points and seven boards. Joe Harris scored 21, going 6-of-7 from 3, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot added 15, making a season-high five (of eight attempts) from deep.
The Nets (19-12) won their fifth straight, improving to an impressive 8-1 against teams in the top five in each conference.
“We want to be a great team,” Irving said. “We have a lot of great individuals that can do a lot of great things any given night and we just want to honor that and continue to have fun out there. It’s fun being connected. It’s fun going out there and competing … and have 2½ hours where the whole world is watching. So we get a chance to prove it on the biggest stage.
“It was fun. You don’t really get a chance to do it often in the regular season, playing against the defending champs or playing against teams you’ll see on the West Coast eventually if they make it to the Finals. So we’re on this West Coast trip and we just want to take advantage of seeing where we stand as a team.”
LeBron James, who passed 35,000 career points in the loss, had a game-high 32 points. But the Nets held the Lakers, who were just 8-of-30 from 3, largely in check.
“It’s a non-negotiable if we want to reach our best level. We have to buy-in,” Steve Nash said. “Guys have improved, turned a corner at the defensive end, where at least now we’re cleaner with our decision-making, our connections with one another, and they’re starting to have little stretches in the game where our defense is strong.”
Irving agreed, saying its took long enough.
“Yeah, it’s about time we turn the corner defensively,” Irving said. “No team is going to win anything in this league if they don’t get stops. It’s about time. We heard them loud and clear in the last few games; its one of our points of emphasis.
“We need that level of grit. It’s OK to get angry on the defensive end and be physical. … We’re not friends with these guys out here trying to win.”
The Nets continued their auspicious dominance against the NBA’s best teams. They’re now 7-0 against current playoff teams in the West, beating the Jazz, Clippers, Nuggets, Suns and Warriors (twice).
Now add the defending champions to that list, with the Clippers on deck Sunday.
The Lakers, who had won eight of nine, led 16-10 after a Kyle Kuzma 3. But the Nets seized control with a 24-8 run. When Harden found Luwawu-Cabarrot for a 3, the Nets had a 10-point lead they never surrendered.
An Irving tip-in of his own miss capped a 14-4 spurt and left the Nets ahead 62-43 with 3:08 remaining in the half.
The cushion was down to 72-63 after a James turnaround fade midway through the third, but then the Nets put it away for good. They went on a 15-4 run, with a Landry Shamet 3-pointer padding the lead to 20 with 3:06 left in the period.
The rest of the evening was cruise control, as they led by as much as 25.
“After our game against Detroit, obviously it was a game in which we struggled really badly on the defensive end, and it was … not a breaking point, but it happened pretty repeatedly,” Harris said. “After that game, the level of focus, the attention to detail and the intensity on the defensive end has really ramped up.”
Nash and the veteran leaders spoke up after the 122-111 loss in Detroit on Feb. 9, and the renewed attention to defensive detail has turned into an impressive streak.
“That was a low for us and it did provoke some conversations and kind of a rededication to what we’re trying to do,” Nash said. “ I’m proud of the way they responded since then, obviously we’ve taken care of business.
“It’s really important that we take every day as an opportunity to get better, regardless of the results. But it also tastes sweet when you go out West and win some games.”