CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Nets closed out 2022 with the longest winning streak in the NBA.
And they rung in 2023 with the look of a legitimate title contender — mainly because they’re focusing on today and not getting distracted by tomorrow.
The Nets cruised to a 123-106 victory over the Hornets on Saturday night at Spectrum Center. The victory ended a three-game, all-business trip. They dispatched the Hornets and headed straight to the airport, getting in the air roughly as New Year’s Eve ended.
“Really, my message to the group before the game is let’s finish the year off in the right way. And that’s taking care of [this] game,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I’ll turn the page once we get to 2023 and fill you in on what the [New Year’s] resolution is going to be, but it’s really keeping this group in the now, playing today’s game, and let’s just win today’s game.”
That’s how the Nets (24-12) extended their winning streak to 11 straight, tying the longest of any NBA team since the Suns ran off 18 in a row from Oct. 30-Dec. 2, 2021. It pulled them within two games of the Celtics, the only team in the league with a better record.
Six Nets scored in double figures as they shot 60 percent as a team. Either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving had led them in scoring in all but one game this season, and Saturday was no exception. Irving had a game-high 28 points and Durant posted 23, as always the fulcrum of the Nets’ success.
“Durant and Irving,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said beforehand. “They’ve got a bunch of skilled veteran guys around them, so they play very smart; but it all starts with those two guys. And you can’t guard either one of them without a second defender, which is what NBA basketball is all about: Creating two to the ball. They’re a super high iso team. They play one-on-one a lot. They’re great at it.
“Kyrie pick-and-rolls, you double team him, he crushes it. So even though it sounds like that’d be a smart thing to do, he’s actually more efficient against double teams in many ways than he is when you play traditional coverages. And then they have really good players around them, veteran guys, high IQ, and they’re playing with great purpose. So you’ve got to do it all.
“You can’t let them score fast-break points, you can’t put them at the free throw line, you can’t let them get second shots, and they can’t be scoring cutting baskets. Because they’re so good at everything else, when they get those then it’s over. So there’s nothing they’re not good at. They’re good at every level. There’s no other team in the league right now offensively near what they’re doing.”
Clifford knows of what he speaks. He spent last season as a Nets consultant and now has a rebuilding job on his hands with the Hornets (10-27).
LaMelo Ball had 23 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for Charlotte. But with Kelly Oubre Jr. out, the Nets held the Hornets to 39.6 percent shooting. Durant and Royce O’Neale smothered Gordon Hayward to two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the floor.
“Really [it’s about] where our focus and concentration level is, not looking ahead at all and taking advantage of what’s in front of you — and that’s [this] game,” Vaughn said. “So really looking forward to how our group approaches this game and how we start the first quarter, start the beginning of the game.”
The Nets had the right approach from the start. Irving found O’Neale for a 3-pointer and an 11-4 lead right out of the gate. The Nets were up, 32-22, after a first quarter in which they shot 65.2 percent and held Charlotte to 34.8 percent.
Nic Claxton had 14 points, six boards, and tied a career-high with six blocks. He scored off a Durant feed to make it 57-42 with 1:30 left in the half, and his layup 54 seconds into the third quarter padded the advantage to 66-49.
The second of consecutive Yuta Watanabe left-corner 3-pointers gave the Nets a 97-79 cushion after three. It grew to 118-96 on an Irving 3 with four minutes left, and the Nets cruised to their 15th win in 16 games.