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 Thursday night at Staples Center.
The Nets didn’t have superstar Kevin Durant — named the captain of the Eastern Conference All-Stars before the game — while Los Angeles was 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 much as 25.
James Harden — who just missed being named an All-Star starter — was sublime again, with 23 points, a game-high 11 assists and six rebounds. The Nets (19-12) won their fifth straight and improved to 8-1 against top-five teams in each conference.
“They’re obviously different without KD, but every bit is potent. And we know what James is capable of, and he’s having a terrific season,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel warned beforehand. “So it’s going to be a little bit of a pick-your-poison, and we want to bring enough help to slow guys down.”
It didn’t work. Kyrie Irving — also named an All-Star starter — had 16 points and seven rebounds. Joe Harris scored 21 on 7-of-10 shooting from behind the arc, while Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — who had been questionable with a sore knee — added 15 on a season-high 5-of-8 from deep.
“Playing with those guys makes the game a lot easier,” Harris said in postgame a TV interview. “We have a lot of actions where these guys are the first action but the second is me coming off a pin down or a flare.
“We’ve definitely improved here of late in this win streak, and a lot of it is on the defensive end. … It makes the offensive stuff come a lot easier.”
LeBron James — named the Western Conference captain — had a game-high 32 points. But other than Kyle Kuzma (16 points,) he got precious little support, with Brooklyn holding the Lakers to 8-of-30 from deep.
“He’s one of the greatest to ever play, and he can win games in many, many ways,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of dealing with James, who passed 35,000 career points in the loss. “I think the No. 1 thing is just getting back and trying to eliminate as many rim attempts, free throws as possible, take away as much of the easy stuff as you can.
“Like all great players, they find a way to get in there and get easy baskets, but if you can take those away, they’ll still score and affect the game. But it won’t be as easy. It will be a little more hard work for them. I think it’s imperative, if you want to win, to try and eliminate all those opportunities around the basket.”
The Nets did enough of that to win their fifth straight, and continued their auspicious dominance against the best teams in the NBA. They’re now 7-0 against current playoff teams in the Western Conference — 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 had won eight of nine coming in, and had been 5-1 without Davis. But after a Kuzma 3 gave the Lakers an early 16-10 lead, the Nets seized control with an extended 24-8 run that spanned the first and second quarters. When Harden found Luwawu-Cabarrot for a 3 of his own, 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 Brooklyn ahead 62-43 with 3:08 remaining in the half.
After having had to come back from a 21-point halftime hole the previous game at Phoenix — the biggest halftime deficit overturned in team history — this time the Nets took an 11-point edge into the locker room.
It was still hovering at 72-63 after a James turnaround fade midway through the third, when the Nets put it away for good. Brooklyn 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, leading by as much as 25.