It was good as soon as it left his hands.
Kyrie Irving shook Fred VanVleet with a snatch-back crossover, got his feet under him and squared up. Then he uncorked a three from the top of the key at the buzzer to deliver the Nets their fifth straight victory with a 119-116 win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday.
Just like his father drew up.
Irving said after the game his father told him to make sure his feet are squared underneath him when shooting those pull-up threes. The advice paid off through Irving’s biggest shot of the season.
And it was a win that reaffirmed the Nets’ standing as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
That’s because the Toronto Raptors could easily be named the NBA’s proverbial measuring-stick team.
The Raptors are a championship-caliber team lacking championship-caliber talent — a perennial contender for the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed ever since Kawhi Leonard left for Los Angeles following the 2020 NBA Finals.
The Raptors consistently own one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses. They are long, they are athletic, they can make threes and two of their players — Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — can make tough shots.
They are a challenge for every team, championship contenders and draft lottery hopefuls alike. A loss to the Raptors is never out of the realm of possibility. They are in every game by sheer effort and continuity. Without OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., they are still a threat.
Which makes Brooklyn’s 4-0 series sweep of Toronto via Friday night’s victory that much more impressive. They have taken a visible stride in winning the so-called games they’re supposed to.
It’s the first time they swept the Raptors since the 2002-03 season — and only the second time they’ve done it in franchise history.
Games against the Raptors are rarely easy. They are one of the NBA’s scrappiest teams every season. For example, Toronto built a second-quarter lead that ballooned to 18 points.
This Nets season, however, has been defined by finding ways to win despite adversity. It’s a glaring difference in the way they operated last season when they frequently lost games to lesser opponents simply by virtue of failed execution and not giving enough effort.
Last season, the Nets would build leads and then blow them. Against the Raptors, it was the opposite.
Immediately after trailing 18 in the second quarter, the Nets gunned their way back into the game via a 25-8 run. They built a lead as large as eight in the fourth quarter.
That’s when things became interesting.
The Raptors, once again, tested the Nets’ resolve, tying the game at 105 apiece with 3:06 to go in the fourth quarter. Toronto led, 114-113, with less than a minute to go.
That’s when the Nets went to their secret weapon: the Seven-Eleven Screen-And-Roll. The last time they used it, Irving set a screen on Kevin Durant, rolled, then hit a midrange jump shot that swung the game.
On Friday night, with the Nets down one, the Nets ran the same play, but this time, Irving took the ball to the rim, then rifled a pass to Yuta Watanabe, who hit a corner three to give the Nets a two point lead.
Moments later, Irving shook VanVleet for the game-winner.
Irving finished with 32 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field and Durant added 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Watanabe finished with 15 points off the bench, and Nic Claxton had one of his best games of the season: 15 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high six blocks.
The Nets now look for their sixth straight victory heading to Detroit for Sunday’s matchup against the Pistons. Three days later, they will host the Golden State Warriors, though the Warriors will be missing Stephen Curry, who is out with a shoulder injury.
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