After an entire regular season of wondering if the Nets could flip the switch when they needed to, the answer apparently was yes. Cleveland’s resounding win in Tuesday’s end-to-end play-in proved that.
Now they will have to do it against a contender.
The 115-108 win gave Brooklyn the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs proper, and a first-round date against the second-seeded Celtics.
Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant led the way and enhanced their teammates before a raucous crowd at Barclays Center, including former minority owner and Brooklyn icon Jay-Z sitting courtside, who he yelled, “We want Boston! We want Boston!”
“We want to win, period,” coach Steve Nash had said earlier. “So do whatever it takes to get the outcome of this game that we need.”
Irving scored a game-high 34 points with 12 assists on super-efficient 12-for-15 shooting, hitting his first dozen before missing with 10:09 left.
Durant continued to play facilitator, as he has with defenses poised to stop him. He had 25 points, 11 assists and five rebounds. Together they didn’t fail in the first quarter, leading a Nets attack that shot 70.8 percent and gave Cleveland a 40-20 lead.
Irving’s 17-foot pull-up under heavy duress hit the halftime buzzer and sent Brooklyn into the locker room 57-43. The Nets increased the cushion to 22 in the third quarter before a fourth-quarter rally by Cleveland fell short.
“It feels like a playoff game,” Durant said before the game. “Each game is just as important. Games 1 to 7 are important. So it’s like a playoff game, and I know our fans will approach it as such and they are, our opponents as well.
“So it’s just a matter of lacing up your shoes and jumping in, seeing what happens out there.”
Darius Garland led Cleveland with 34 points, but the Nets’ much-criticized defense stifled the Cavs by building a big early lead.
With former Net center Jarrett Allen injured (finger) and not there to protect the Cavaliers’ rim, coach JB Bickerstaff ruled out an early 3-2 zone after seeing it flummoxed the Nets in previous games. But not this one.
Bruce Brown (18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) gave Brooklyn a quick boost in his rolling role. And Durant did it on both ends, blocking Lauri Markkanen at the rim to send the Cavs courtside at Barclays Center. Durant ran down the court, took a pass from Brown and drove, catching the defense and throwing Andre Drummond for a dunk.
That made it 17-9, and moments later, Durant threw a perfect rebound pass without looking at Irving on the fast break. He put the Nets up 23-14 with 3:52 left in the first quarter.
A rare jump shot by center Nic Claxton (13 points, nine rebounds and five blocks) doubled Cleveland 40-20 after a first quarter in which the Nets shot 17 of 24, including 8 of 8 by Durant and Irving.
The Cavs opened the second quarter on a 9-2 run with Durant resting.
But Irving hit the halftime buzzer to make it 57-43 at halftime, then found Drummond for a razor-sharp layup that made it 69-47.
The clock read 8:19 in the third, but the game was more or less over.
Brooklyn let it get to 88-82 on a Garland float with 8:43 remaining, but no closer. Durant responded with a corner 3-pointer to end the run, and Brown’s layup went into double figures.
When he got back to six at 99-93, Durant responded with back-to-back baskets to end the threat. And the Cavs.
Now Boston calls, with Game 1 on Sunday at the TD Garden.
Brooklyn dominated the Celtics in a five-game sweep of gentlemen during the first round last year. But this time, the Nets find Boston red hot.
The Nets have lost three of their four meetings this season. While Durant and Irving missed two of those losses, both were in the lineup for the March 6 loss in which they gave up 54 points to Jayson Tatum.