Kyrie Irving shakes off rust as Nets rip shorthanded Raptors

TORONTO — For a change, the Nets didn’t overlook a shorthanded foe.

They overwhelmed them.

The Nets used withering defense and a third-quarter blitz Wednesday to beat the Raptors, 112-98, before a sellout crowd of 19,800 at Scotiabank Arena.

The Nets bounced back from Tuesday’s humiliation in Philadelphia, flying north a night later and holding Toronto to 35.6 percent overall and just 7 of 29 from deep.

How good was the defense? The Nets got just 12 points from Kevin Durant — but the 10 steals and 11 blocks had him happy in the locker room.

“We’re in the business for winning,” said Kyrie Irving, who poured in a game-high 29 points. “So we’ll take this one, especially after [Tuesday] night’s loss and the whole internet going up in an uproar in terms of how embarrassed we should be — which is true — and we just wanted to make sure we paid attention to detail. We came out and responded.”

Especially Irving. He had 26 points after the break, the highest-scoring second half of any Net this season. Irving had 19 in a third quarter that saw the Nets outscore Toronto 39-25 and blow the game open.

“Just being Kyrie,” Ben Simmons said. “That’s what we want him to do — just being himself to have that confidence to come out and take those shots and be who he is.”

Kyrie Irving, who scored 26 of his 29 points in the second half, goes up for a shot during the Nets’ 112-98 win over the Raptors.
AP

Granted, the Raptors (9-9) were playing without Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes, but that made this exactly the kind of trap game that Brooklyn had spent the past couple of weeks falling into.

“We played down to the level of competition,” Markieff Morris said of trailing early in the third. “They’re obviously a good team but they had a bunch of players out. We did the same s–t [Tuesday] night and tried to correct that.”

Since Jacque Vaughn replaced Steve Nash, the Nets’ defense has gone from incompetent to inconsistent, more of an up-and-down roller coaster based on their engagement level. And that level has dipped when facing shorthanded foes.

They lost to the LeBron James-less Lakers, had the worst defensive performance in franchise history facing a Kings team on an NBA-record 16-year playoff drought, and then fell in Philadelphia against a 76ers squad missing Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. Irving admitted there were lessons learned.

Kevin Durant, who was held to 12 points, looks to make a move during the Nets' win.
Kevin Durant, who was held to 12 points, looks to make a move during the Nets’ win.
NBAE via Getty Images

“I go to the human nature part of there was no Harden, no Embiid, no Maxey. And that’s the honest truth,” Vaughn said. “We all have a hand we’ve dealt with; these are the cards. … We still had our full boat, but we didn’t play like we had aces over kings.”

Brooklyn was all aces Wednesday, shooting 54.9 percent with every starter in double figures — and it was fueled by the defense.

Simmons had 14 points, six assists, three steals and two blocks. Nic Claxton added 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. And in his quiet night, Durant was a game-high plus-30 with seven boards, five assists, three blocks and some engagement on defense, visibly getting on Joe Harris for a defensive miscue.

“Our film session was very open, and let’s talk about some of these scenarios that are happening because we want that to continue onto the court,” Vaughn said. “Really trying to get this to group to open up, demand of each other, talk out there on the floor. It’s a huge part of us being better defensively. When the team hold each other accountable that’s what you want.”

The Nets stormed out of the starting blocks, going up 38-23 on an Edmond Sumner reverse with 47.3 seconds left in the first.

Nets
Ben Simmons dunks the ball against the Raptors.
Getty Images

Even after they let it dissipate, falling behind 53-52 on Christian Koloko’s tip-in, they seized the momentum right back with an 18-4 run.

Simmons’ cutting dunk off a Claxton assist put Brooklyn up 68-57. And when he stole the ball from Gary Trent Jr. and went in for a breakaway dunk with 8:16 left in the third, it capped the run and put the Nets ahead 70-57.

They padded it to 109-88 on a tip-in by Day’Ron Sharpe, who also hit a 3.

“It really was a standard that we have to have for each other. Part of it is finishing plays. You didn’t see as many breakdowns at the end of plays, the concentration level,” Vaughn said. “A big piece of that is just holding each in a higher standard. … You saw that. A lot more talk, a lot more communication, a lot more demand of each other, which was great to see.”