Many viewed Saturday night’s Nets-Lakers clash as a preview of the NBA Finals. But this had no resemblance to championship basketball.
When the teams tipped off, there were already three superstars missing. A fourth sidelined himself when Kyrie Irving got ejected early in the third quarter. And by the time it was over, what was left of the defending champion Lakers beat what was left of the Nets, 126-101, before 1,773 disappointed fans at Barclays Center.
League officiating has come under scrutiny at times this season, and it will be again after Irving and Lakers point guard Dennis Schroder both were ejected, for the first time in a combined 18 NBA campaigns, over what seemed to be nothing more than typical on-court jawing at each other.
Kevin Durant led the Nets with 22 points, and the ejected Irving scored 18 in 21 minutes. But that wasn’t the sole reason the Nets (36-17) lost this one. They didn’t need any help from the officials to do that. For the root cause of this defeat, they need only look in the mirror.
The Nets were playing without MVP candidate James Harden, out with a strained hamstring. But they were facing a Lakers team that was missing not only superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but also Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol.
It didn’t matter: buyout signee Andre Drummond was enough for the Lakers.
“That would be a terrific challenge for us [facing them healthy],” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Obviously, adding Andre gives them size and an excellent center, but at the same time, I think the reason the Lakers were the champions last year is because AD’s the best small-ball center and LeBron’s the best small-ball four, at least in the playoff run last year.
“I think it just gives them options and depth and another facet. If they want to go big, they have another guy that can do a lot of things at the center position. Pick your poison. They’d be very formidable with the smaller version of their frontcourt or the big one.”
There was much lamentation from small-market general managers when the Nets hit the buyout market to land big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin. But Griffin finished with just two points, while Aldridge got bullied for much of the night by Drummond (20 points, 11 rebounds).
So physically dominant was Drummond that Nash tried to avoid even using springy-but-spindly young Nic Claxton on him. And while the occasion seemed to call for DeAndre Jordan, the 6-foot-11, 265-pounder remained out of the rotation and on the bench for the fifth straight game.
The Nets allowed 50.5 percent shooting — 19-for-34 from 3-point range — and eight Lakers scored in double figures, including Schroder, who had 19 in barely 20 minutes.
The Nets were largely outplayed from the start, falling behind 11-2 after a Schroder 3-pointer with 9:33 left in the first quarter.
Drummond isolated on Aldridge, bullying his way inside to pad the Lakers’ lead to 18-7. The Lakers hit seven of their first eight — 3-of-4 from deep — and the tone was set for the rest of the night by a team that was not looking ahead.
“Honestly, my mindset is to try to win [Saturday’s]) game, really. Its not anything more than that,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re not looking down the road.”
At one point, Drummond battled with four Nets for a rebound, Irving even darting in to make it five-on-one. No matter. Drummond still corralled it, as the Nets got battered on the boards early on.
With the Nets down 49-39 midway through the second quarter, they mounted a 17-3 run to take the lead. A Durant put-back knotted it at 52-all with four minutes left in the half.
Durant crossed over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and dunked over Drummond to give the Nets the lead. That got Durant’s mother, Wanda, on her feet cheering on the front row. Aldridge capped the run and gave the Nets a 56-52 lead.
They couldn’t hold it.
With the Nets trailing just 66-62 and 9:41 left in the third, Irving and Schroder started jawing with each other and both were ejected.
On his way off the floor, Irving tossed his jersey to fans as he headed back to the locker room. He took with him any momentum the Nets had.
The Nets immediately gave up a 22-9 run and fell behind 88-71. It just kept growing from there in the fourth as the Nets imploded.
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