LOTTERY-BOUND I 10 lottery teams eye Auburn star I Bruce Pearl to NBA teams: Sharife Cooper is a ‘once-every-10-year’ point guard

knicks, sharife cooper

There are two particular big games in Sharife Cooper’s young career that convinced his coaches he’s going to be an elite point guard in the NBA.

In 2019, with McEachern’s perfect season on the line, Cooper led the Indians to a come-from-behind win against his AAU teammate-turned rival BJ Boston and Norcross in the state semifinals.

“I’ll always remember playing against Norcross in the state semifinals during his junior year,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson told Empire Sports Media.

The game was a rematch of the previous year’s quarterfinals, where Norcross knocked off Cooper’s team. It looked like a deja vu was in the offing.

“At halftime, we’re getting beat. He and Isaac (Okoro) were not playing very well. Sharife had not played well in his freshman or sophomore year in the last game that we had. And I wore him out really bad. I got on him as hard as I’ve ever got into a kid at halftime,” Thompson recalled.

Then something happened. Cooper turned on the switch button.

“He looked me in the eye and took everything that I’ve said. He went out and dominated the second half against Norcross and took us to the state championship. And we won the state championship,” Thompson said.

Cooper willed the Indians to an epic 66-62 win. He led the scoring with 26 points while Okoro, his partner-in-crime and the fifth pick in last year’s NBA Draft with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had 18 after the duo combined for only eight in the first half.

“[Sharife] was very coachable and I was always excited for him because I felt like that was the time he took the most pressure-packed moment and he turned into the very best player in that situation. That I will never forget,” Thompson said.

That year, the Indians went undefeated in 32 games for McEachern’s first state title in school history and became the first undefeated team in the highest Georgia classification since 1995. Cooper averaged 27.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 steals per game in an MVP season that spilled over several tournaments after that historic run. Prior to his stellar high school career, his AAU team went undefeated during his middle school.

Fast forward to January of this year, Cooper’s much-anticipated college debut after missing Auburn’s first 11 games due to eligibility issues.

“Players of less character and less commitment to the team would have walked away,” Bruce Pearl told Empire Sports Media.

“He came in everything that he was allowed to come to. He was 100 percent supportive of his teammates throughout that process. And I tell you what, that is rare. That fervent leadership with nothing to be gained by him. He was gonna stay ready.  He missed 72 days of practice. And the night before we played Alabama, an early afternoon game, he found out he was eligible and he came out the next day. He scored 23 in the second half in his first game.”

Cooper is a hooper. Without a single practice in the last two-and-a-half months, he was thrown into the fire but still dominated the game. He overcame a jittery start and ended up with a game-high 26 points and nine assists in a narrow 94-90 loss to in-state rival Alabama.

Right at that moment, Pearl saw up close how special Cooper is. He was as good as advertised.

“Sharife is a once-every-ten-year fast-breaking, playmaking, transition, and ball-screen floor general with his ability to make plays for himself and others,” Pearl said.

Cooper supercharged a lethargic Auburn offense. He produced 39.6 points per game via his own scoring or assists, the best in all of the college basketball last season, per Synergy. He tops all guards in the upcoming NBA Draft in points created via assists, per Shot Quality.

In the 12 games that Cooper played, Auburn averaged 83 points while its offense sputtered and coughed up only 72.5 points in 15 games without him. 

 

“He had a pied piper effect. He has the ability to bring other guys along with him which is great for a point guard,” Pearl said.

Ira Bowman, Pearl’s assistant coach and the guy assigned to Cooper during his time in Auburn, marveled at the point guard’s effect on the team.

“[Sharife] is one of those guys who see what the group needs. He is the guy that’s gonna be vocal when he needs to. He’s a leader by example guy but he’s a guy that brings people together. There are guys who are good distributors, good playmakers but he’s the type of guy that makes people around him really, really good,” Bowman told Empire Sports Media in a separate interview.

“Sharife is a unique player. I’ve been in the SEC for five years but I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve been around and he’s a sponge for the game. He has certain God-given gifts that you can’t teach. His ball-handling, his passing, his vision, his leadership are unparalleled.”

The NBA Playoffs saw how Trae Young made Clint Capela a lob threat, how Chris Paul unlocked Deandre Ayton. Cooper had the same effect on every team he’s played with, from AOT in the AAU circuits to McEachern and Auburn.

“If you look at Isaac Okoro, who was the fifth pick in last year’s Draft, he’s a much different player when he was playing with Sharife. You talk about BJ Boston, looking at a lot of these mock drafts they have him in early second round. But when he played with Sharife, he was a Top-5 player in his class. Then there’s Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and so on,” Bowman said.

“That’s just kind of what he does because he’s elite with playmaking, passing with either hand. Because no one can stand in front of him and he can get to wherever he wants to go on the floor. He’s naturally gifted who looks to make a pass first and find easier shots for the other guys. Again, there are people who train their whole life that can’t do those things and he’s naturally gifted,” Bowman said.

The Cooper effect in Auburn was on full display during his brief stint there.

In the 12 games Cooper played, Cambridge had 8 double-figure games. JT Thor, the other Auburn player expected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft, had also hit in double figures in eight games. Flanigan did it in 11 games, including four with at least 19 points.

In the 15 games without Cooper, Cambridge could only hit the double-digit mark in just six games, Thor in eight games, and Flanigan in 10 games.

“I felt like at Auburn, if they had anybody who could knock down shots, he might have averaged 20 assists a game there,” Thompson said.

Cooper will greatly benefit from the floor spacing and better overall talent in the NBA than the young team he had at Auburn.

As much as he’s adept in making plays, he’s also producing buckets in a variety of ways. Those are the two swing skills that intrigued Pearl when Cooper was making waves in Georgia.

“His ability to score and play in traffic. That being undersized, you thought physically you could bounce him around. But he has an uncanny way of delivering passes on time, and on target, and scoring in really crowded places. The other thing is he is ambidextrous. Whatever he could do with his left hand, he could do with his right hand,” Pearl said.

It’s so easy to nitpick his size or the lack of it. But Bowman swears he doesn’t see Cooper regressing in the next level.

Despite being undersized, Cooper has that competitive edge, dog mentality which Bowman attributed to his father Omar, who grew up in the New Jersey-New York area before uprooting his family to Atlanta.

“When you go up against Sharife, the things that you’ll realize is that he’s faster than you think, he’s bigger than you think, he’s stronger than you think. I’ve been around him probably half his life and I haven’t seen him bullied on defense and I’m a thousand (percent) sure it won’t happen in the next level,” Bowman said.

Cooper joined Young as the only freshmen to average 20 points and eight assists in college basketball in the last 30 years. Aside from sharing that record with Young, Cooper also draws comparison to the Hawks’ rising superstar for his propensity for drawing fouls. In 12 games with Auburn, Cooper averaged 8.6 attempts and converted a solid 83 percent.

“I think he’s gonna be a championship-level point guard who’s gonna be a multiple All-Star guard. I’ve been around long enough. I watched Kyrie as a freshman — before he went to St. Patrick’s School, before he became who he was. I watched Chris Paul before what people thought he was. The crazy thing is that Trae Young, having the success that he’s having now, Sharife did what Trae did in the EYBL circuit,” Bowman said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the teams that doubted Donovan Mitchell, that doubted Trae Young, they will be the same teams who’ll wish they have [Sharife] because again the things he brings to a team, you can’t teach,” he added.

The last seven NBA champion teams have an elite point guard — Tony Parker (Spurs), Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), Stephen Curry (Warriors), Kyle Lowry (Raptors), and Rajon Rondo (Lakers). Paul is trying to join that club this season. Young could soon follow.

Each point guard has his own strengths and weaknesses but what stand out is the elite vision, playmaking, and championship poise that propelled their team to greater heights.

Cooper possesses those qualities. If there’s an only blemish on his dominant college run, it was his shaky outside shooting. But his coaches believe that he is a better shooter than what his 23-percent clip from the three-point range suggests.

“I think because he’s so gifted getting into the rim and getting others the ball that his mindset was to make a play and score first, shoot last,” Pearl explained. “That was a function of why he didn’t shoot a great percentage. And of course, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities. I think he’ll really be a good NBA shooter because there will be times when he will be hunting for his shot. He’s so productive breaking his opponent down. That’s his first and second thought.”

Bowman offered another layer of context.

“People say, look at his shooting percentages. But he’s a much better shooter than his shot and the numbers he showed in the sense that he played the season after sitting out for 72 days of practice and never really got his legs. All the stuff that he does, he’s a leader. I’ve been in this [coaching] for a while and never coached a kid that can do everything on the floor. And obviously, he’s gonna will his way to be a great player. He will never be satisfied with being great,” Bowman said.

“As far as working on his game, he’s shooting thousands of shots a day. The percentages don’t show where he is but he’s always been a good shooter. He’s gonna be a great shooter with a year of training camp because like I said, he jumped right in the middle of the season and didn’t have his legs and played catchup for the rest of the year. Because he’s so gifted in doing the other things and nobody can stand in front of him, it’s just one of those things where he got settled with some of those shots. So, I’m not concerned at all.”

Thompson, meanwhile, pointed to Cooper’s shooting display in his Pro Day at the Draft Combine in Chicago to prove that it was just an outlier.

“He shot it really well during his junior year and I think he really did a work on that heading into the Draft Combine and his Pro Day. And he showed in his Pro Day that he can really shoot well. As a matter of fact, he got a standing ovation from a lot of executives,” Thompson said.

In the EYBL circuit during his junior year, Cooper shot 35 percent on 5.7 attempted 3s in 10 games, per Real GM. There were no available statistics that show his shooting percentages during his undefeated run with McEachern. But his solid free-throw shooting clip in college provides hope that Cooper’s struggle from long-distance at Auburn is just an aberration.

More than 20 NBA teams have reached out to Pearl and spoke with him at great length about Cooper. All of them had the same question: “At his size, what do you think? Is he gonna make it as a star in the NBA?”

“That question has always been asked. It’s been asked in his high school career and he was the national player of the year and went undefeated during his junior season. It was asked in college and he averaged 20 points and almost 10 assists. And so, it’s gonna be asked at the next level but Sharife has always proven everybody wrong. That’s for a fact,” Pearl said.

How will he do that? By just staying true to himself.

Bowman gave us a peek at what made Cooper successful in every level he’s been to, which will translate well in the NBA.

“I’ve been watching him since the seventh grade. You see young kids that make mistakes and just shrug it off but he’s somebody who was obsessed with not turning it over, obsessed with making the right plays. I’ve seen him do things that didn’t work and come back and make adjustments. He does it on the fly. You rarely see him make the same mistakes twice. Those are things you can’t teach. That’s the basketball junkie that he is. He’s obsessed with being great. That’s what’s gonna happen,” Bowman said.

During his one-and-done season at Auburn, Bowman and Cooper were almost inseparable.

“He’s somebody that made me stay in shape with the amount of time that he was in the gym,” Bowman said in jest. “It’s just like having another whole job. Being able to make sure he’s getting satisfied with his basketball skill work. It was refreshing in the sense that it’s a throwback. He’s not somebody that sits around and hopes things happen. He’s gonna figure out what to do and how to make it happen.”

Cooper starts his day with what he called a ‘Breakfast Club’ at 6’o clock in the morning with basketball on his plate. After an early morning shootaround, he eats his real breakfast and attends his class. After lunch, he hits the weight room before going to practice. Then after practice, he does extra shooting before retreating to the film room. After dinner, he comes back for more extra work until 11 at night.

“He’s a gym rat,” Bowman said. “Night, morning, he’s always in the gym. He’ll do everything that we, coaches, asked our players to do and he’s gonna do more. He’s not gonna get outworked. The first guy in the gym, the cliché, last to leave but he’s also coming back. His work ethic is unparalleled. His mindset was already a pro.”

Any team in the NBA would love to have that type of player. He blew away a lot of teams during his Pro Day workout.

Auburn’s Sharife Cooper is touted to be the next elite point guard to make the NBA jump. (Getty Images/Walt Beazley/Arkansas Athletics/USA Today Sports)

Young went No. 5 in his class, Paul went No. 4. So his coaches believe that Cooper, who had done stuff that Young did in high school and college and has the court smarts of Paul that elevates his teammates, is lottery-bound.

Overall, 10 of 12 the teams in the lottery have either met or scheduled to meet with Cooper: Houston Rockets (No. 2, 23, 24) Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 3), Toronto Raptors (No. 4), Orlando Magic (No. 5, 8), Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6, 16, 18), Golden State Warriors (No. 7, 14), Sacramento Kings (No. 9), New Orleans Pelicans (No. 10), Charlotte Hornets (No. 11) and Indiana Pacers (No.13).

The other teams from the outside (of the lottery) looking in who are confirmed to have either met Cooper or worked him out are the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Hawks.

According to a source, that list is expected to grow to 25 teams before the NBA Draft on July 29.

“Everything (mock draft) I read has him going to New York. I think that’d be a great fit. They need a point guard. I think he’d be great in that city. That city would embrace him,” Thompson weighed in.

“He’s spent a lot of times in New Jersey. That’s where his family is originally from. He knows [the Knicks] really well. I think his mind — his psyche – that’s one of the strongest suits he has. I think he’ll just be fine there. He’s an entertainer and he will be a perfect fit in New York,” he added.

Curiously, the Knicks haven’t met Cooper yet. However, ESPN’s Draft Analyst Jonathan Givony noted on ESPN’s latest NBA Mock Draft after the Combine that “the Knicks’ front-office brass and head coach Tom Thibodeau were front and center in Chicago for Cooper’s pro day, where he had a strong showing.”

Pearl also highlighted Cooper’s New Jersey roots.

“Here’s the thing, he identifies with New Jersey. That’s where he’s born. That’s where his dad played ball. Even if he played high school ball in Atlanta, he knows his roots. He knows where he’s from. He’s just a loyal kid that is grateful for the opportunity,” he said.

But both the New York teams are outside the lottery. According to a source, the Knicks have a level of interest after doing their due diligence on Cooper. With Cooper already on the radar of eight lottery teams, both the Knicks and the Nets might have to trade up if they really want the star point guard out of Auburn.

Bowman believes Cooper is the best pure point guard of this class, and he’s a plug-and-play guy right away, noting the impact of Trae Young and Chris Paul in this NBA playoffs.

“At this point, you don’t know who has the most interest. Everybody is doing their due diligence. I will just say that there’s a group of teams that needs a point guard,” Bowman said. “That they would be more successful if they have a guy like Sharife and I’m not saying who I like or who I don’t like. But I’m gonna say, whoever gets him will be lucky.”

“But you look at the Knicks and what Trae Young did to them, and the Sixers on what Trae Young did to them, and you look at the Lakers on what Chris Paul did to them. So you talk about the Lakers, Clippers, the Rockets who are rebuilding who don’t have a point guard. There are tons of teams who can plug him in and help immediately. But obviously, being from the Northeast, we talk about, you see the Knicks and the Sixers how they played.”

“Any team that sees the value in a true leader and a guy who’s gonna make people around him better, I think anybody would be lucky to have him. But I like Golden State. I don’t think Steph Curry is a point guard in a grand sense of things because he’s coming off so many screens and can do a lot with the ball if he had somebody who can set him and Klay Thompson up coming off the screen. I just see [Sharife] getting successful at about every stop,” he explained.

Pearl views Cooper in the same mold as the top point guards in today’s NBA. And he hopes whichever team that picks his former star player will trust him the way he did, akin to how Monty Williams trusts Paul that propelled the Suns two wins away from an NBA championship.

“Obviously, [Sharife should go to] a team that truly wants a point guard. In this day of positionless basketball, sometimes coaches have different people bringing up the ball on the floor. It’s got to be a coach who wants to put the ball in Sharife Cooper’s hands and let him run the team,” Pearl said.

“Lead point guards are not for every system, not for every coach. And I think that’s where the question – does Chris Paul, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, their ability to run a team and break people down and get everybody involved interests you? – if that’s a fit for that head coach, then great. But if he’s a coach who doesn’t care who leads the break and brings the ball up the floor, then Sharife wouldn’t be attractive to them. I couldn’t do anything more productive offensively than putting the ball on the hands of Sharife. Give him space, and let him make plays.”

His coaches can’t wait to watch Cooper’s next big game, this time in the NBA, to let his next coach and the fans see for themselves what they saw in him throughout these years.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Brooklyn Nets V Milwaukee Bucks Game 5 ticket prices down with Kyrie Irving OUT

kyrie irving, brooklyn nets

The Brooklyn Nets are preparing to take on the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening, but star point guard Kyrie Irving will sit out with an ankle injury.

With the series tied at two apiece, Brooklyn will have to rely on  Kevin Durant to carry the load, a player who has proven his excellence over the past decade. Durant is more than capable of carrying the team in the absence of Irving and Harden, but any more injuries could stir a bit of trouble for a team that lost a two-win lead in the series over the weekend.

Reserve PGs, Mike James, and Tyler Johnson, will supplement the loss of Irving, with an expected healthy dose of Landry Shamet. Of course, losing a player like Irving, who averaged 26.9 points, 6.0 assists, and shot .506 from the field during the regular season is significant.

GET YOUR CHEAP GAME 5 TICKETS HERE!

Game 5 Ticketmaster pricing data:
  • Tickets in the 200’s level start at $80.
  • Tickets in the 100’s level start at $189.
  • Tickets in the lower level start at $256.
  • VIP Seats start at $818
  • Floor Seats start at $3,579

Non-vaccinated section ONLY AVAILABLE HERE!

The prices for the game have plummeted since the beginning of last week, dropping to below $80 for the 200 levels. To enjoy the game from the lower level, tickets start at $256, and VIP seats are under $1000.

Playoffs in Derrick Rose’s mind but Knicks must take care of little things

knicks, new york knicks, derrick rose

When Derrick Rose sought Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey’s blessing to reunite with Tom Thibodeau in New York, he thought of playing in the playoffs.

That mindset hasn’t changed despite Rose missing an extended period of time due to COVID-19 and the New York Knicks (25-26) falling outside the top six in the East.

The Knicks have lost eight of their 14 games since the All-Star break entering Wednesday’s important matchup against their Atlantic Division rival Boston Celtics, who have an identical 25-26 record.

Rose admitted he is still working on his conditioning despite coming off with a 16-point performance in the tough two-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets last Monday.

“Having COVID(-19), coming back in, missing the game, I’m just trying to get my rhythm. I’m trying to get my timing down, trying to get my wind, but that’s going to come,” Rose said after their morning shootaround in Boston on Wednesday. “I’m trying to use these last 20-something games to prepare myself for a playoff series.”

Rose isn’t thinking of a play-in scenario. He was honest that he’s not fully aware of the new format the NBA introduced in the Orlando Bubble last season to spice things up heading into the playoffs.

“I really don’t know the rules of it,” Rose said. “What is it? How many games do you have to play?”

The play-in tournament has the 7th to 10th teams battling for the last two playoff spots, with the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 facing the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10.

Rose doesn’t want anything to do with that and wants to go straight to the playoffs.

“I heard about it last year but didn’t pay too much attention to it. We weren’t in the playoffs and I don’t watch basketball like that. If we’re there, we have to play those games,” said Rose who missed the Orlando Bubble with the Pistons last season. “But we want to avoid that and just try to win as many games as possible. So we don’t have to worry about that. That’s our ideal choice if we can pick it.”

The Knicks are 2-3 since Rose returned from his COVID-19 battle. He had a solid first half against Kyrie Irving and the Nets with 15 points. But Rose only scored on one free throw in the second half. Clearly, he’s not yet where he wants to be conditioning-wise.

It’s going to take some time but it’s going day by day, practice by practice, and in the game, quarter by quarter. I had a pretty good half last game and now the goal is to have two legit halves and just play as hard as I can so I can build up my wind,” Rose said.

The Knicks were careless and have blown double-digit leads in their last three losses. Their only win against a team above .500 since January came at the expense of a Milwaukee Bucks team who were missing seven players, including four of their starters led by back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Knicks failed to capitalize on some winnable games. They’ve lost to the league’s worst Minnesota Timberwolves. They couldn’t stop Luka Doncic and Irving.

The Nets game could have been theirs after James Harden’s hamstring injury acted up four minutes into the game. For a while, they appeared to have seized the opportunity, building a 14-point lead only to squander it easily— an alarming trend in the Knicks losses.

With only Irving left from the Nets’ Big 3, the Knicks blew their chance of beating their rivals across the river. Instead of stepping up, they shrunk in the big moments.

Instead of taking care of the little things, they overlooked them.

Julius Randle, who misfired on a potential game-tying jumper at the end, somehow lost his focus down the stretch after his scuffle with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot midway in the fourth quarter.

The Knicks All-Star forward turned the ball over in the next play after he and Luwawu-Cabarrot earned double technical fouls. And Randle only scored on a pair of free throws the rest of the way.

“I’m not sure what his problem was,” Randle said afterward. “Like I said, he’s not a guy I’m worried about when I’m playing.”

The player who was the least of his worries killed them in the end as Luwawu-Cabarrot came back to haunt him and the Knicks.

Luwawu-Cabarrot, who finished with nine points, three assists, and three rebounds, made the most important play of the game. He tipped in a Joe Harris’ miss to Jeff Green, who sank the game-winning free throws.

The Knicks forgot to box him out. And they paid dearly for it.

In three (Miami, Minnesota, and Brooklyn) of their last four losses, the Knicks got beaten in the offensive glass.

Had the Knicks been careful, they could have maintained their top-four standing in the East. But that’s water under the bridge now.

Tonight, they have been afforded another golden opportunity as the Celtics will be without Kemba Walker (load management) and trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier (health and safety protocols).

The Knicks could learn from Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) in the 2021 movie “Little Things.”

“It’s the little things that are important, Jimmy. It’s the little things that get you caught,” Deacon reminded young investigator Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) in the dark crime thriller. And later: “It’s the little things that rip you apart.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Kyrie Irving, 2nd chance points fuel Nets’ sweep over Knicks

new york knicks, julius randle

Julius Randle and the New York Knicks blew a golden opportunity to beat the hobbling Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets’ Big 3 was reduced to only one superstar in Kyrie Irving after James Harden joined Kevin Durant at the sidelines with a hamstring soreness four minutes into the game. Blake Griffin also took an off night in the second game of a back-to-back schedule.

No problem for the Nets.

Irving carried the offensive load with a 40-point masterpiece while his supporting cast clawed and scrapped to complete their comeback and regular-season sweep of the Knicks, 114-112, on Monday night at the Barclays Center.

It went down to the last possession again.

Unlike in their previous meeting, Randle didn’t lose the handle this time and got his shot off. But it still didn’t matter as he muffed a potential game-tying jumper at the buzzer.

Irving’s 40-point basket, a three-pointer, over Elfrid Payton with one minute left gave the Nets a five-point cushion.

The Knicks, though, refused to fold up easily.

Randle’s two free throws and an Alec Burks’ three tied the game with 26 seconds remaining.

Irving had plenty of help to get the job done.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot tipped a Joe Harris’ miss to Jeff Green who drew a foul from Reggie Bullock.

Green calmly sank the marginal free throws, then challenged Randle’s last shot on the other end to send the Nets to their third win in as many games against the Knicks this season.

It was a hard pill to swallow for the Knicks, who blew a 14-point lead.

The undermanned Nets clawed their way back by crashing the boards. They held a 45-41 rebounding advantage and grabbed 11 in the offensive glass. The Nets parlayed that advantage to 26 second-chance points.

In contrast, the Knicks only had five offensive rebounds and just two second-chance points.

Green added 23 points, nine coming off free throws, while Harris contributed 16 and eight rebounds for the Nets.

The heartbreaking loss pushed the Knicks down to one game below .500 (25-26) and the eighth spot in the East.

The Knicks will continue their uphill climb on Wednesday with a face-off against the streaking Boston Celtics (25-25), who momentarily climbed to seventh place.

Randle finished with his fourth triple-double of the season and his third in the last 12 games. But his 19-15-12 stats line was dimmed by his inability to rise when the game was on the line. He is now 1-for-7 when the Knicks are tied or trailing by three in the final 30 seconds of a game this season, according to Daily News’ Stefan Bondy.

It was a sorry loss for the Knicks, who countered the Nets’ Big 3 talks with Randle and Bullock, boldly saying they have ‘Big 15’.

They walked the talk for three-fourths of the way until Irving and his scrappy Nets closed the third quarter with a 14-2 run to take an 89-88 lead.

The Knicks built a 10-point halftime lead behind Reggie Bullock and Derrick Rose’s hot hands and Randle’s superb playmaking.

Randle already had a near triple-double (11 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists) in the first half, while Bullock fired 16 of his 21 points and Rose had 15.

Irving and Green sparked the Nets’ comeback in the third with 21 combined points.

RJ Barrett finished with 22, including big baskets in the fourth quarter.

Before the game, Barrett said he couldn’t wait for his next chance to take a last-second shot. His remarks were in response to Minnesota rookie Anthony Edwards mocking him for missing at the end of their narrow loss against the Timberwolves last week.

While Barrett had the hot hands in the fourth quarter for the Knicks with seven points, he didn’t earn the last shot.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Anti-climactic ending in Atlantic: Knicks’ comeback falls short in Nets’ nest

New York Knicks, Immanuel Quickley

It was an enthralling match with the trappings of a high-stakes playoff game where the stranglehold of a basketball city so desperate to get back to NBA relevance hung in the balance.

It was the old power New York Knicks against the new order Brooklyn Nets in Atlantic Avenue.

In the end, a controversial call failed to give it a fitting finish as the Nets escaped with a 117-112 win on Monday night.

Perhaps this would be the start of a heated rivalry between the two resurgent New York teams.

Kyrie Irving saved the Nets from a complete meltdown with a swipe to Julius Randle’s three-point attempt to send the game into overtime. Randle went down with the ball and dribbled that earned him a traveling call.

It was an anti-climatic finish to a riveting game that had its ebb and flow.

The Nets came into the game the heavy favorites even without arguably their best player, Kevin Durant. They still had two of the best guards in the league in Irving and James Harden.

The Knicks tried to counter the Nets’ firepower by inserting the streak shooting rookie Immanuel Quickley into the starting lineup. For a while, it worked as the Knicks, behind Reggie Bullock’s red-hot shooting, led by seven early on, 18-11.

But it was just a matter of time before the Nets’ overwhelming talent took over the game. They extended a five-point lead to 17, 49-32, on a back-breaking 14-2 run at the onset of the second quarter. The Knicks’ second-unit offense suffered without Quickley. Frank Ntilikina continued to struggle, coming up empty in five attempts.

Brooklyn was led by as many as 18 and appeared cruising to an easy win, an encore of its 116-109 win at The Garden on the day the Nets completed the blockbuster Harden trade.

Harden had his first taste of the New York rivalry and quickly stamped his signature. He finished with his 10th triple-double (21 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists) of the season and became the first Nets player to register a triple-double with at least 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists.

“The New York fans, especially the Knicks fans, you can hear them. I don’t know how many fans we have in the building in total, but you heard a lot of Knicks fans. We understand the tradition, but I’m just happy to be part of the rivalry,” Harden said.

He would hear more of them once the arenas would welcome back fans at full capacity. But despite having only 1,600 people allowed for the game, the Knicks fans led by celebrity Spike Lee engulfed the Barclays Center, especially during the fourth quarter.

But they were silent for much part of the game when the Nets’ offense was humming.

Irving, who Blake Griffin described in his pre-game interview as a “creative scorer,” scored in a variety of ways — pull-up jumper, crossover, and stepback jumper, nasty drives, three-pointers with hand on his face.

The Knicks tried but could not contain Irving, the New Jersey native and a self-confessed Nets fan growing up. He led the Nets with 34 points on efficient 13-of-18 shooting.

The Knicks, though, did not back down from the challenge. They showed plenty of fight, and their grittiness enabled them to storm back from an 18-point third-quarter deficit and came within a three-point basket from forcing overtime.

Quickley, the rookie sensation out of Kentucky, did not disappoint in his first NBA career start. He had 21 points but fell silent in the fourth quarter.

It didn’t matter as Randle found his rhythm late, pouring in 12 points in the Knicks’ late fightback. He was furious after the traveling call and had to be restrained by his teammates, the Knicks coaching staff, and even William Wesley, the team’s executive vice president.

Randle tried to match Irving and Harden’s star power during crunch time, but his effort went down the drain with that call. Randle collected 33 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals.

Barrett ended up with 23 points, six rebounds, and four assists after a rough start to the game. Bullock and Alec Burks had 19 and 12, respectively, combining for seven of the Knicks’ 15 triples.

After surviving the Knicks’ blistering start, the Nets’ supercharged offense overwhelmed the Knicks’ defense. Brooklyn shot 70 percent in the first quarter to take a 35-30 lead after being down by seven. The Nets ended up with 58 percent, still far from Tom Thibodeau’s liking.

If the Nets were silky-smooth on offense, the Knicks lived to fight with their grittiness that earned them 27 trips at the line. They hit 24 free throws that helped them hang with the Nets.

Their defense was air-tight in the closing moments, forcing two jump balls in the final 10.8 seconds of the game.

All the Knicks wanted was a shot at winning the game. They had their chances but couldn’t capitalize. And in the end, the breaks of the game didn’t go Manhattan’s way.

On the flip side, for all the talks that the Nets are just all offense, they leaned on defense to pull out this win. Irving, despite the controversial call, took care of business and made a game-winning defensive stop.

Crew chief Scott Foster explained after the game that it was the correct call.

“The defender (Irving) was deemed to touch the ball but not cause it to be dislodged or loose. Upon that, when the player (Randle) alights, he cannot purposely drop the ball or dribble the ball or be first to touch after he dropped the ball,” Foster said.

The Brooklyn franchise collected stars to establish a new order and try to end a New York tradition.

But not so fast.

The Knicks won’t give up their grip on the city without a fight. Monday night’s game was a testament.

The close call was the Nets’ 100th win over the Knicks, who hold a slim one-win edge in their all-time head-to-head matchups. The Nets could tie it with a regular season-sweep on April 5.

Brooklyn has a firm grip of the second spot in the East with a 27-13 record, half a game behind Philadelphia, after extending their winning streak to five.

The Knicks slipped to 20-2, still good for seventh place in the East.

A Knicks-Nets playoff matchup should be a perfect treat for New York fans.

But for that to happen, the Knicks should continue to defy the odds.

They will try to close out the tough four-game road trip to start the second half with a victory in Philadephia against the Sixers, the current best team in the East.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Brooklyn goes all-in, net Harden in blockbuster 4-team trade

The Brooklyn Nets are going all-in!

The Nets pushed all their chips on the table to acquire Houston Rocket’s disgrunted superstar James Harden, forming a super team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn gave up its young core led by Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, multiple first-round picks, and pick swaps in the blockbuster deal.

The trade expanded to include the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne.

The Rockets then shipped LeVert to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo. Allen and Prince were re-routed to the Cavaliers.

The final trade scenario looked like this, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania:

Nets acquired:

  • James Harden

Rockets acquired:

  • Victor Oladipo (via Pacers)
  • Dante Exum (via Cavaliers)
  • Rodions Kurucs (via Nets)
  • Nets’ unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2024, 2026)
  • pick swaps with Nets (2021, 2023, 2025, 2027)
  • Cavaliers’ 2022 first-round pick (via Milwaukee Bucks)
  • future second-round pick (via Pacers)

Pacers acquired:

  • Caris LeVert (via Nets)
  • future second-round pick (via Rockets)

Cavaliers acquired:

  • Jarett Allen (via Nets)
  • Taurean Prince (via Nets)

‘It can’t be fixed’

The trade which Harden pushed so hard since the offseason escalated quickly after his zoom interview last night.

“We’re not even close, honestly, to, obviously, the defending champions (Lakers) and all the other elite teams out there,” Harden said. “I mean, you can tell the difference in these last two games.

“Chemistry, talent-wise, everything. It’s clear. I love this city. I’ve literally done everything I can. It’s crazy. I don’t think it can be fixed. Thanks.”

The Rockets eventually caved in to his trade demand.

Reunion in Brooklyn

Harden is now reunited with Durant, his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate.

The Nets got much-needed firepower after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a season-ending injury. An uneven start forced the Nets to mortgage their future for the present. It didn’t help that Irving also went on leave due to personal reasons.

The trade, though, left the Nets’ bench gutted.

They have three more spots to fill. Look out for Jamal Crawford’s name to be linked to the Nets anew. Crawford played for the Nets in the Orlando bubble.

Moving on

The Rockets, meanwhile, can now move forward from the drama that engulfed the team up to this point.

Oladipo will team up with John Wall at the backcourt.

The Rockets endured a volatile offseason with Harden instigating a ‘holdout’ in the training camp. That caused him to miss the beginning of training camp and their first two preseason games. He was subsequently fined for violating the league’s health protocols.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers got an emerging young center in Allen. He will serve as their center of the future with Andre Drummond set to hit free agency.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

20 names in New York sports that made 2020 tolerable

In 2020, we learned just how small sports were on the grand scale. Even so, these New Yorkers brought hope and joy to the beleaguered area.

Ah, 2020…we knew ye too well.

“Auld Lang Syne” will hit a little differently this New Year’s Eve, as the country and the world entire prepares to bid farewell to one of the most brutal 366-day cycles in recent memory. The year even took away sports at one point in time, which might’ve almost been seen as a merciful act considering the modern endeavors of New York sports. Metropolitan athletics have consistently fallen far short of their inflated expectations. Save for the New York Islanders’ surprise trip to the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals, each of New York’s teams either endured early postseason exits or missed out entirely.

Yet, there were several names in the sports world, before and after the period of pause and reflection, that gave the metropolitan area hope in this brutal season. ESM bids farewell with 20 legends…

Josh Allen

So brutal were metropolitan affiars this season that we had to turn to our friends in Western New York. But, unless you’re a Jets who has two annual meetings with Allen to dread for the foreseeable future, it’s hard not to appreciate what Allen has done for the Bills’ franchise, defying draft day expectations out of Wyoming and playing a vital role in ending their 17-year playoff drought and turning them into Super Bowl contenders. Entering Sunday’s regular season final against Miami (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Allen has broken Jim Kelly’s record for most touchdown passes in a single season of Bills football (34) and is within striking distance of Drew Bledsoe’s yardage record of the same variety. Allen has also taken home six Offensive Player of the Week Awards in his career (four this season), second only to the ten earned by the aforementioned Kelly.

Mathew Barzal

As the New York Islanders go through a period of both transition and prosperity…being one of the rare metropolitan teams to experience postseason success in 2020…Barzal has evolved into a face of the franchise, taking over from the Toronto-based John Tavares. Appropriately, it was Barzal that informed the hockey world that the Islanders were going to be a problem in the bubble, scoring the game-winning goal in the their 2-1 win over Washington in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round, a tally that gave the Islanders a 3-0 lead in the series. Ironically, Barzal’s moment of glory came in Tavares’ current stomping grounds of Scotiabank Arena.

Mekhi Becton

The New York Jets have a lot of questions to answer once the calendar officially flips. But Becton, the Jets’ first-round choice (11th overall) out of Louisville is crossing one need off their offseason shopping list. Called upon to protect Sam Darnold’s blindside, Becton has become one of the most dominant young blockers in football, ranking at or near the top of several analytical rookie lists. The Jets aren’t quite sure who their quarterback is going come next September. They do know, however, that Becton will be serving as his security.

James Bradberry

Formerly under general manager Dave Gettleman’s watch in Carolina, Bradberry came to New York with relatively little fanfare. He has since gone on to become one of the biggest reasons why the Giants have a shot at anotherwise inexplicable playoff spot. Bradberry has done his part to make sure that Big Blue is at least well represented in the SportsCenter Top 10, making several acrobatic interceptions that led to his first Pro Bowl nomination.

Steve Cohen

A lot of adjustment was required to make it through 2020, but the Mets remained their same disappointing selves, tying with the defending champion Washington Nationals for last place in the NL East. But, thanks to new owner Cohen, there’s legitimate hope in the organization for the first time in ages. The Great Neck-born hedge fund manager has immediately endeared himself to fans with promises to use his surplus budget in free agency (which manifested early with the signing of James McCann), his willingness to clean house shortly after his arduous purchase was completed, and his lighthearted interactions with supporters on Twitter.

Gerrit Cole

The shortened seasons denied Yankees fans the full Cole experience in the early going, but it’s safe to say the newly minted $324 million man lived up to the hype. He saved the best for last, earning a 1.00 ERA over four starts in September and later struck out 13 without a walk in the Yankees’ Wild Card Series win over Cleveland. Such a feat had been accomplished since Tom Seaver’s endeavor in the 1973 NLCS.

Stefon Diggs

The trade for Diggs feels like it happened years ago, as do all the tweets and thoughtpieces that claim the Bills gave up too much for the former Minnesota Viking. But the Minneapolis Miracle worker has made the four-pick exchange worth it, even erasing the fact that the Bills missed out on rookie sensation Justin Jefferson. Like Allen, Diggs is rewriting the Bills’ record book, breaking Eric Moulds’ former marks for single-season for receptions (120) and yardage (1,459). Both of tallies lead the NFL entering the final week of the regular season.

Kevin Durant

Brooklyn Nets fans received a bit of a special Christmas gift this year, as they were finally treated to Kevin Durant’s debut in black and white. Teamed up with Kyrie Irving, the ten-time All-Star hasn’t lost a step, putting 28.3 points and 5.8 rebounds over his first four games. Durant apparently saved the best for first, torching his former compatriots from Golden State for 22 points on opening night before scoring 29 in a Christmas win over Boston.

Sabrina Ionescu

The draft lottery has turned into a cruel custom for the blue and orange hardwood representatives in New York, but the Liberty hit the jackpot with the drafting of Ionescu in April. The city didn’t get the full Ionescu treatment in her rookie season, with an ankle injury limiting her metropolitan antics to three games. But the Oregon alumna is on pace to be a true face of women’s sports in the area, with her jersey sales ranking fourth in the WNBA this season. Ionescu gave her new Brooklyn fanbase something to be excited about before fate stepped in, scoring 33 points in only her second career contest.

Kyrie Irving

Irving’s 2020 heroics likewise required patience. He partook in only 20 games during the shortened 2019-20 campaign (none of them during the Nets’ endeavor in Disney World) but managed to drop 54 points (on 19-of-23 shooting from the field) in a January win over Chicago. Irving likewise emerged as one of the most vocal voices in social change alongside his basketball brothers and sisters. He was more than willing to carry on his basketball antics on the court once he was ready to get rolling again, torching the Celtics for 37 points on Christmas.

Jazmine Jones

Perhaps no one defined the 2020 New York Liberty sense of resiliency and development better than Jones. Bookending the first round of the 2020 WNBA Draft with Ionescu, Jones took full advantage of relatively consequence-free basketball, making herself essential when the Liberty’s plethora of veterans potentially return in 2021. The Louisville alumna took over point guard duties after Ionescu went down, resuming a role she last played during her high school days at Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School. She put up 10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game, earning a spot on the league’s official all-rookie team.

Brock Nelson

Signer of a six-year deal to remain an Islander before the season started, Nelson became one of the team’s most reliable and clutch performers during their run to the conference finals. He scored three game-winning goals and finished second on the team in postseason points with 18.

New York Guardians Defense

The second attempt at XFL feels like an endeavor from years ago, but briefly took over the February calendar with a slate that wound up lasting five games. It allowed MetLife Stadium to enjoy at least some form of victorious football, as the local Guardians won each of their two games at the venue. Their defense was particularly strong, as Cavon Walker led the league in sacks (4.5) and six different defenders earned at least one interception.

Artemi Panarin

If there was ever a year to not take risks, 2020 was certainly at, or at least near, the top of the list. Despite Panarin’s many talents, many saw the Rangers’ seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the former Blue Jacket (a smaller price tag after Panarin spurned the Islanders) as too much dedication to a single player. But Panarin lived up to the massive deal, finishing off the shortened season with a career-best 95 points (good for a third-place tie on the NHL ledger).

Logan Ryan

As a Rutgers alum, New Jersey native, and the man who took Tom Brady’s final New England throw back for a touchdown, Ryan seemed destined for a metropolitan collaboration. The Giants took the plunge shortly before the season began, and Ryan has rewarded them with a strong showing that has included good coverage, 91 tackles, and an interception that clinched the season sweep against Washington (which will come up big if the two sides tie for the NFC lead after Sunday). It has been an emotional season for Ryan, whose wife Ashley endured an ectopic pregnancy. Ryan later inked a three-year deal to stay with the Giants on Christmas Day.

Kailen Sheridan

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first North American team sports league to make its return this summer, staging its annual Challenge Cup festivities in Utah. Sky Blue FC, their debut season at Red Bull Arena pushed back due to obvious reasons, had struggled in recent years but put on a strong showing with a fourth-place finish. Sheridan was the driving force behind the effort, winning the tournament’s Golden Glove award to the tune of three shutouts. Sky Blue also had a respectable showing in the NWSL’s fall showcase, earning a matching fourth-place mark.

Tom Thibodeau

Wishing someone association with the James Dolan-owned sounds like a punishment one would avoid giving their worst enemy…at least their worst hardwood enemy. Thibodeau, however, returns to the ranks of head coaching to face what’s his toughest challenge yet. But, unlike his predecessors, it appears Thibodeau has a plan for the Knicks moving forward, seeking to change the culture and build a team-centered atmosphere. So far, it’s played in the Knicks’ favor. The team has played competitively in the infantile stages of the season, sitting at 2-2 after the first four games (including a dominant win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee). They’ll have chance to end the season on the right note on Friday night against Toronto (7:30 p.m. ET, MSG).

Semyon Varlamov

The jokes against Islander goaltending officially ended, or were at least put on hold, through Varlamov’s efforts. He came up with several big saves during the playoff trek and was one of only six goalies inside the Canada bubbles to record multiple shutouts. His 2.14 goals against average was also fourth amongst goalies with at least 10 playoff starts.

Quinnen Williams

Williams retook control of the narrative surrounding his career, as many felt he was destined to be a bust after struggling in his rookie season (and with Pro Bowler Josh Allen going shortly after him). But Williams responded with a stellar sophomore season, leading all interior defensive linemen in both traditional and analytical categories as one of the most consistent backfield invaders in the league.

Mika Zibanejad

Zibanejad is perhaps responsible for the most dominant one-man effort of the 2020 sports season, tallying a jaw-dropping five goals, including the overtime winner in a March win over the Capitals. The yield from one of the biggest robberies in New York sports memory (the biggest loss being Derick Brassard to Ottawa in the trade), Zibanejad again put up his best numbers despite a shutdown, scoring 41 goals (fifth in the league) in 57 games.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Brooklyn Nets: Breaking down the Nets Final Preseason Win against the Celtics

Brooklyn Nets, Kyrie Irving

If you’re a follower of Brooklyn Nets news, then you have probably seen the video of Kyrie Irving burning sage prior to the Nets’ final preseason game against the Celtics last night. Irving explained after the game, his “smudging” was meant to cleanse the energy in the arena but to0 many Nets fans, it may have had a slightly different meaning; a fresh start. Not since the early 2000s have Nets, fans had a team with this much hype and excitement around them. With a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, returning key contributors in Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen, and adding Landry Shamet and Jeff Green in the offseason to round out this roster, stakes could not be higher for the Brooklyn Nets as we approach the regular season.

Breaking Down the Nets Final Preseason Game

Kevin Durant Shows Out

While the first preseason game belonged to Kyrie, Durant stole the show against the Celtics last night, scoring 25 points on 9-16 from the field in 27 minutes of action. Whether it was the pull-up three, blowing by his defender for the dunk at the rim, or the un-guardable mid-range shot, Durant showed to everyone last night that he hasn’t lost a step. But elite offense wasn’t the only feature Durant showcased last night; he also led the Nets with 3 blocks, several of them coming at the rim. If this is the Kevin Durant Nets fans will get this season, barring any health setbacks, then there aren’t many teams in the East who can claim their #1 is better than Brooklyn’s.

Kyrie Continues to Lead

There have been several instances throughout the first two pre-season games where Kyrie Irving has shown his leadership among teammates. Yesterday, there were two specific scenarios. One came shortly after a Spencer Dinwiddie drive to the basket, of which there was contact with his defender but no call. This became a reoccurring theme for Dinwiddie throughout the night, as there were not many fouls called on his behalf. After a particularly physical drive, Dinwiddie was visually frustrated on the ground after not receiving the call, and an encouraging Kyrie Irving came over to him to pick him up. Seems subtle and small, but those are the types of actions that good teammates and leaders exhibit on a nightly basis.

The second moment came from Irving leading by example. After the Celtics went on a mini-run midway through the game, Tatum had just finished a sequence in which he had scored 5 straight points and rejected Spencer Dinwiddie on his drive to the rim. With the Nets only leading by 9, the smallest lead since the beginning of the game, Irving demanded the ball with Tatum covering him, immediately took him to the lane, and scored on a beautiful floater. You could feel the Celtics’ momentum vanish as the Nets would go on a scoring run of their own after that moment. These are the types of momentum swings that leaders like Kyrie and KD have to execute in order for the Nets to be dominant. Kyrie finished with 17 pts, 5 assists, and 7 rebs in 28 minutes.

Role Players who Impressed

There were several Nets outside of KD and Kyrie who performed exceptionally last night. Joe Harris had a huge “remember me guys?” moment early on in the game and finished with 14 points. Dinwiddie looked efficient with the starters, despite a 1-7 shooting night, picking his spots on when he should attack and when he should defer to the two stars on the team. And Jarrett Allen continued his excellent play in backing up Deandre Jordan (will return to shortly) with a stat line of 9 pts and 11 rebs. As for the two newcomers in Jeff Green and Landry Shamet, they have given Steve Nash some excellent minutes thus far. Shamet has looked sharp with the 2nd unit and moves well without the ball. Green, playing at the 5, has given the Nets a small-ball lineup with all 5 players on the court capable of hitting a three. TLC gave the Nets 11 solid minutes off the bench and has fought hard this preseason to crack this Nets rotation.

Preseason Summary & Remaining Roster questions

Obviously, the biggest story out of the Nets’ two preseason games has been how great Kyrie and KD have both looked. There needs to be something said about the fact that these guys complement each other’s games very nicely. KD can play with anybody, and Kyrie now feels he has an equal scoring counterpart on his team (sorry, Lebron). The supporting cast has looked exceptional, and Nash has done a great job of mixing and matching rotations in hopes of generating an optimal five players throughout the game. The Nets have dominated their opponents in both preseason games, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions about this team headed into the regular season.

For example, who will start at the center position, Deandre Jordan or Jarrett Allen? In two preseason games, Coach Nash has yet to insert Jarrett Allen into the starting lineup. Now, this is where many Nets fans have disagreed with Nash; anyone with eyes can see Allen has the ability to contribute much more than Jordan, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, the narrative is that because Jordan has a close-knit friendship with KD and Kyrie, he will continue to start over Allen. This is something that may change if the Nets go on a losing skid early on in the season.

Another question Nash will have to answer is who will start alongside Kyrie, Spencer Dinwiddie, or Caris LeVert? Yesterday, we saw Dinwiddie get the start, who seemed to mesh well with Kyrie and KD despite the off shooting night.  LeVert led the 2nd unit and eventually would get some time with KD and Kyrie in the 3rd. While it seemed as though Nash’s strategy worked as LeVert managed to score 18 points in 21 minutes, the Nets are still unsure on who will start and who will come off the bench between the two.

Thanks for reading this article! Be sure to check out our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for your latest Brooklyn Nets news and listen to the Fireside Nets w/ Spen & Nick podcast!

Durant, Irving look good together but Nets’ title hopes still fragile

For the first nine minutes and 27 seconds of the preseason game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards last Sunday night, the world saw a glimpse of the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving potential.

The 119-114 final scoreline in favor of the Nets didn’t tell the whole story.

Worth the long wait

It was a long wait for the Nets, who signed both superstars to separate four-year deals as the culmination of the reclamation project of GM Sean Marks in Brooklyn. But definitely worth it.

Started from the bottom, the Nets have gone a long way, morphing from a team with no cap space into a fringe playoff contender and now a serious title threat in the NBA.

In that glorious stretch in the opening quarter, the long recovery of both Durant and Irving from serious injuries was an afterthought. Irving’s contentious relationship with the media was sidetracked. James Harden was never needed.

Durant dusted off anxious moments and shrugged off nervousness with a baseline dunk for his basket since tearing his Achilles back in June of 2019.

The former MVP was back to his silky-smooth ways scoring 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting, while Irving’s court wizardry produced 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. The Nets were in full control with Durant and Irving on the floor. They opened up a 12-point lead, 30-28, that ballooned to as many 26 points.

‘I was anxious, nervous’

It didn’t matter the Wizards tried to come back when Durant went out for good in the third quarter while Irving didn’t see action in the second half. What mattered was they showed it’s really worth the wait.

“I was anxious, nervous. I visualized this moment for so long — nine, 10 months of thinking about how it would be, this next phase of my career,” Durant said postgame. “I felt like I was chomping at the bit, especially once COVID hit because I didn’t see a future — when the season was going to start in the future. I was going through it.

“So to go through this felt solid.”

Durant played a total of 24 minutes and finished with 15 points, three rebounds, three assists, and two blocks.

He looked confident in his first game back.

‘The world missed Durant’

Irving led the Nets with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting despite sitting out the whole second half.

“That’s one of the perks of this position, is you get to coach two incredible players,” said first-time head coach Steve Nash. “Ky was super sharp and Kevin, after such an extensive layoff was very good and close to being incredible.”

“When you have that type of injury,” Nash said of Durant after the game, “it is kind of remarkable he’s at the level he’s at.

“It’s amazing. This is an injury that very few people have conquered, so to speak. It’s beautiful to see him back on the basketball court. I think the world missed him — I certainly did.”

Without Durant and partially Irving (shoulder injury), the Nets were still able to contend for the last playoff spot in the East.

This season, they are expected to contend for the title.

But that will hinge on Durant and Irving’s fragile bodies to hold up for the condensed season.

Bench depth over Harden

James Harden could be their insurance. But if there’s anything their first preseason game revealed aside from the Durant-Irving dominance, the Nets also saw the depth they will potentially miss if the Houston Rockets’ superstar gets his wish.

The Rockets have maintained they do not want the Nets’ complimentary players plus picks, per ESPN report. They may need a third team where the Rockets can get a young star.

But Marks have earlier remarked that the Nets don’t want to mortgage their future for Harden. Durant, on the other hand, denied recruiting Harden.

The Nets, who played without young rising star Caris LeVert due to patella contusion, had four more players in double figures aside from Durant and Irving.

Spencer Dinwiddie had 10 points and seven assists. Newcomer Landry Shamet, acquired via Draft Day trade, his 3 of 5 from the outside to finish with 13 points. Taurean Prince and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot each added 11.

Irving breaks media silence

Irving, who skipped the postgame interviews, finally broke his media blackout Monday morning.

The Nets and their star point guard were fined $25,000 each for the media blackout to which he responded with a controversial Instagram:

“I’ve had enough of someone else propaganda… I pray we utilize the ‘fine money’ for the marginalized communities in need, especially seeing where our world is presently… I do not talk to Pawns. My attention is worth more.”

Irving addressed them in his first media session, denying it was directed to NBA writers.

“It’s really just about how I felt about the mistreatment of certain artists when we get to a certain platform of when we make decisions within our lives to have full control and ownership… We want to perform in a secure and protected space,” he said.

He also retracted his earlier statement on Durant’s podcast that he really didn’t see them having a coach.

“Steve’s been amazing,” Irving said Monday. “He kind of commands the respect. I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of the head coach back a few months ago. But it’s just like, man, we have such a great synergy. Everyone feels like we’re coaching one another to be better, so I’m grateful for that.”

If their first game together is any indication, the synergy looks great. Credit it to Nash for not having a big ego and having the right temperament to handle the issue that could have otherwise gone south.

While the Nets are off to a good start, their title hopes still hang in the balance of their superstars’ fragile bodies and egos. 

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Report: Nets, Rockets verbally agree on James Harden blockbuster trade

The Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets are nearing completion of a blockbuster deal that will send James Harden to Brooklyn, according to Anthony Puccio of Front Office Sports.

Multiple sources have told Puccio that there’s a deal in place, and both teams already have a verbal agreement.

Shortly after the news broke out, Farbod Esnaashari of Sports Illustrated put out more details on the imminent trade.

The Rockets are seeking a massive haul in return for Harden, who has been the face of the franchise since 2012. The 2018 MVP earned his third scoring title last season after averaging 34.3 points. In addition to his dynamic scoring, Harden also averaged 7.6 assists, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.8 steals, becoming just the third player to lead the NBA in total points and steals to join Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson in the exclusive group.

Harden, 31, earlier rejected a two-year, $103-million extension offer putting more pressure on the Rockets to trade him to his preferred destination.

The Nets rose on top of Harden’s wish list after conversations with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the West Coast, and with former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni joining the Nets in an assistant role to first-time head coach Steve Nash.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo