With five seconds to play and the Nets trailing Miami by one, Kyrie Irving pulled up for what would appear, at first glance, to be an ill-advised, if not outright awful, potential game-winning 30-footer.
But consider the context. Kevin Durant was not on the floor, having left in the third quarter with a knee injury. So much of what the Nets do offensively is predicated on Durant demanding multiple defenders, even as a jump shooter, and Irving, particularly against rotating defenses, being able to feast one on one.
Without Durant, however, it was Irving getting surrounded by multiple defenders on Sunday. The Heat were throwing everything at him, forcing the ball out of his hands with the game in the balance. It was working. The Nets were completely out of sync trying to create offense with Irving removed from the equation, and had committed a turnover on their previous two possessions with less than a minute to play.
And so, Irving decided to make sure he would get his opportunity to win the game before Miami could take the ball away from him again. Anticipating the double team, he just up and launched from the logo. It missed right, but Royce O’Neale came up with the loose rebound and put in the shot that would eventually prove to be the game-winner for Brooklyn in a 102-101 victory.
Again, that Irving shot is a pretty terrible decision in a vacuum. The Nets didn’t need a 3-pointer. Let alone a 30-footer. It probably came a bit too early in the clock, too, if you want to get technical. You hear all the time about superstars making the “right play” at the end of games, which is to say not forcing their own offense when multiple defenders come at them, instead doing exactly what the defense wants them to do by passing to someone else.
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Seth Curry was having a great fourth quarter on Sunday, but he wasn’t on the floor for the final possession. Yes, the Nets still had multiple players out there that are capable of hitting an open look created by Irving being paid double attention, including O’Neale and Yuta Watanabe, but they also had two non-shooters out there in Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton. Neither O’Neale or Watanabe is a trustworthy creator with the game on the line in terms of attacking the defense in rotation and weaponizing Simmons or Claxton as a lob threat.
Again, that’s why Miami wanted the ball out of the hands of Irving. As a general rule, if you’re doing what the defense wants you to do, the defense is winning, independent of the result. I would argue the same is true when looked at in reverse. If you’re taking the shot that gives your team the best chance at success, then that is a winning shot, independent of results.
Go ask Jacque Vaughn if he wants Irving taking the game-winning shot in that situation. Without Durant on the floor and considering the failures of other guys to create over the final minute, he’s going to tell you, absolutely, 100 out of 100 times.
Could Irving have worked to get a little closer to the rim? Sure. But every split second he held on to that ball he was increasingly likely to have it taken out of his hands. Also, that is roughly the same shot that Irving had hit less than 48 hours earlier to seal the Nets’ win over New Orleans on Friday.
Take it back three weeks to Irving’s buzzer-beater to beat the Raptors. The play was called for Durant, who then suggested running the same play for Irving, who eagerly lobbied Vaughn in the timeout huddle for the opportunity. Vaughn listened to his top guys. The whole exchange was captured on film before Irving stepped on the floor and delivered.
That huddle exchange put a rare light on the inner workings of a team that is suddenly connected at the height of its considerable powers. Every player on this Nets team right now understands and is embracing his role, and Irving’s role, particularly without K.D. next to him, is to take and make tough shots. He has done that at an extraordinarily high rate.
Entering play on Sunday, Irving was the league’s top fourth-quarter scorer at 8.9 points per game on 50-percent shooting. He just got done averaging 29 points per game on 51-42-92 shooting splits for the month of December. He had 24 first-half points on Sunday. It was his game, and that was his shot. A little deep? Sure. A little impulsive? I guess. But Irving has earned the right to take that shot; not over the course of his Hall of Fame career, but within the specific context of this Nets team at this particular time.
Irving has been deservedly slammed for all the times and ways he has undercut this Nets team during his and Durant’s tenure, and if we can keep his name in the headlines when he’s screwing up, then we can surely do the same when he’s one of the driving forces behind a team that looks as united as any in the league. The Nets are celebrating each other’s successes. Irving and O’Neale doing their choreographed handshake after big plays is the portrait of a team having legitimate fun.
All these good vibes were behind that shot by Irving on Sunday. Every player on that court was in support of him taking it, and they believed he would make it. In that way, it doesn’t really even matter that it didn’t go in. Even if O’Neale wouldn’t have come up with that rebound and the Heat would’ve lost the game, the Nets would still be winners in the big picture. They know who they are, and they’re ready to roll with their guys.
In the past, Irving jacking up a shot like that, at a time like that, and missing to cost his team the game could have, or perhaps would have, torn at the already frayed locker-room fabric. But this team is stitched as tight as ever right now. In this context, Irving took that shot with his teammates behind him, and it was only fitting that it wound up being his teammate who picked him up. The Nets are in this together right now, and if it stays that way, they’re going to be as dangerous as anyone come title time.