Kevin Durant has to be at home smiling.
The Nets had every reason to lose to a loaded Golden State Warriors team on Sunday night. They had to overcome multiple double-digit deficits. They had to overcome Golden State intentionally fouling their worst free throw shooter. They, of course, are still without Durant, the foundation of their entire offense who is out with a sprained MCL.
And yet they the Nets still came away with a 120-116 victory, their second in a row after losing four straight following Durant’s injury.
It was arguably Brooklyn’s best win of the season.
After scoring a season-high 48 points in the win against the Utah Jazz, Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and five-of-seven shooting from downtown. Irving also tallied nine assists and seven rebounds. For the first time in his career, he has posted three straight games of 30 points, five assists and five rebounds.
At some point, however, Nic Claxton and Ben Simmons are going to have to hit free throws under pressure.
The Golden State Warriors made clear they were going to exploit one of Brooklyn’s biggest weaknesses in Sunday’s showdown between two championship hopefuls. Two of the Nets’ key starters are awful free throw shooters and one of them became a liability early against the Warriors on Sunday.
The Warriors repeatedly sent Claxton to the line as they built a second-quarter lead that ballooned as large as 17. They continued to Hack-a-Clax when the Nets wiped the that lead away with a 19-5 run in the third quarter and returned to the technique late in the fourth quarter until the two-minute mark, where it becomes illegal to intentionally foul a player who doesn’t have the ball.
It’s a smart game plan — even if the Nets hate it.
Because for all his strides as a player on both ends of the floor, Claxton’s regression as a free throw shooter has been notable. After breaking Shaquille O’Neale’s record of 10 straight missed free throws before the first make in Game 4 of last season’s playoff sweep against Boston, Brooklyn’s starting center is shooting 11% worse from the foul line. He started Sunday night one-of-six from the charity stripe before hitting three in a row in the fourth quarter to finish 6-of-15 from the line.
And when the Nets cut Golden State’s 13-point fourth-quarter lead down to just five with under four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Warriors hacked Claxton again. He missed both free throws. Head coach Jacque Vaughn decided to leave his starting center in the game one more possession before subbing Yuta Watanabe in until after the two-minute mark.
It’s crippling given Claxton’s importance both offensively and defensively, even more so with Durant out of the rotation. He is an elite shot blocker, perimeter defender and finisher at the rim — but opposing teams can intentionally foul him to send him to the line, where he struggles the most.
Last season, Claxton shot 58% from the line. This season, he is shooting 47% — and that average declined on Sunday.
Simmons struggles just as much from the line, though he only averages 1.5 attempts per game. He averaged 60% from the line in each of his first four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers but is only shooting 43% from the line in Brooklyn this year.
Simmons, however, was not the priority for the Warriors to hack on Sunday.
Maybe the Nets can view this as a badge of honor — that the Warriors had to resort to fouling their worst free throw shooter because playing straight-up was an even game.
Claxton said postgame the Warriors didn’t take the Nets seriously because Durant wasn’t on the floor. The Nets are proving they are learning how to win games when their leader isn’t available.
It’s all Durant ever wanted last season. Maybe these Nets aren’t the same as last year’s after all.