Nets top Clippers to lay down gauntlet to rest of NBA
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Steve Nash said the word "toughness" 10 times during his postgame media conference. Kyrie Irving used the word "fun" seven times in his.
It has been a remarkable combination for the Brooklyn Nets, who have won six games in a row and swept all five games of their West Coast trip, including a 112-108 victory over the LA Clippers on Sunday.
The Nets are a changed team. They're playing defense. They're going after offensive rebounds. They're hustling. Communicating. And jelling.
They know the exact moment when things clicked.
It happened after their 122-111 loss to the Eastern Conference-worst Detroit Pistons (8-22) on Feb. 9. The Pistons can count their wins on two hands and have a winning percentage of 26.7. The Nets gave up 122 points to them? They were mortified. That night, the veterans spoke up in the locker room -- and Irving called out the team publicly.
He reflected Sunday on the two words he told reporters after that game — and the power they held.
"Well, I went on quote by saying we look 'very average,' so I think everyone kind of took that personally, including myself," Irving said. "We just used that as motivation. And guys came out in that Indiana game, and we played with that effort. And I feel like we've continued to do so since then."
The Nets have won each of their games following their unraveling in Detroit, resulting in their longest undefeated trip in franchise history. Over the past week, they've notched victories over three of the top teams in the Western Conference, including the Phoenix Suns (19-10), Los Angeles Lakers (22-9) and Clippers (22-10).
Most amazingly, they've done it with their defense.
The Nets realized that even though they might have one of the greatest offenses ever, that isn't enough. They can't win games by simply outscoring their opponents. They also have to stop them.
In their past six games, they've given up an average of 111 points and have held teams under 100 points twice. That's a vast improvement over their first 26 games of the season, in which the Nets allowed 118.4 points per game and limited opponents to less than 100 just four times.
The Pistons gave them the slap in the face they desperately needed — and it left a mark that still stings.
"I think we look back to the Detroit game and how poor our application was," Nash said. "That's not toughness. Mentally, physically, we were a shadow of ourselves. So these last six games, I think our toughness has been there. We've been willing mentally, physically and emotionally to lay it on the line every night. And I know that's just clichés, but that's the truth."
The past 12 days, the Nets have gritted their teeth, showing the rest of the league — and themselves — what they're capable of.
Missing two of their three superstars in Kevin Durant (strained left hamstring) and Irving (back tightness) on Tuesday against the Suns, they clawed their way back from a 24-point hole to win 136-125.
On Sunday, without Durant and after losing both Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (right hip contusion) and Jeff Green (right shoulder contusion) during the game, the Nets withstood a feverish fourth-quarter run by the Clippers in which LA battled its way back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at 108 with 28.6 seconds left.
In the final moments, the Nets came through on both ends of the court.
With 11 seconds remaining, DeAndre Jordan flew over Marcus Morris for a perfectly timed tip-in layup after Irving missed a 3-pointer. Three seconds later, James Harden forced Kawhi Leonard to commit an offensive foul as he drove to the basket, which sent Harden to the line for two free throws.
The Nets have been in perfect synchrony, with each player excelling in his role so that the team can flourish.
According to Nash, the road trip did wonders in bringing the team together. Away from their homes and families, he watched the players bond and build camaraderie.
And it has bled onto the court.
"The fact that those guys have come together a little bit more and look like they like each other and want to play together has been the most positive part of the last six games," he said.
For Irving, it has led to a lot of fun.
When a reporter asked him about that play, Irving cut him off with an extended, "Wooooooooooo."
Heck, even after he missed the 3-pointer with 11 seconds left, Irving divulged that he enjoyed light-heartedly trash-talking the Clippers, telling them, "Y'all got away with one on that one."
After the game, he said the Nets are enjoying playing right now.
"I think we just have a common mentality right now, just to go out there and have fun," he said. "Really, go out there and have fun and compete and be very physical, be talkative out there against other players, against other coaching staffs, and we just have a veteran group, so we're able to hold each other accountable a little bit differently."
It's just all clicking.
What's scary is the Nets are looking this good without Durant, who has missed seven of the team's past eight games because of his hamstring injury.
That means the hottest team in the league will soon be adding back a player who's averaging 29 points a game.
The Nets might have even more fun ahead of them.
The rest of the league, not so much.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.