Kevin Durant must be grinning at home.
The Brooklyn Nets had every reason to lose to a loaded Golden State Warriors team on Sunday night. They had to overcome multiple double-digit deficits. They had to overcome Golden State intentionally fouling their worst free throw shooter. They are still without Durant, the foundation of their entire offence, who is out with a sprained MCL.
Despite this, the Nets won 120-116, their second in a row after losing four straight following Durant’s injury.
It was arguably Brooklyn’s best win of the season.
Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting from downtown after scoring a season-high 48 points in the win over the Utah Jazz. Irving also had nine assists and seven rebounds. For the first time in his career, he has three straight games with 30 points, five assists, and five rebounds.
However, Nic Claxton and Ben Simmons will have to shoot free throws under duress at some point.
In Sunday’s showdown between two championship contenders, the Golden State Warriors made it clear that they would exploit one of Brooklyn’s biggest flaws. Two of the Nets’ key starters are poor free throw shooters, and one of them became a liability early against the Warriors on Sunday.
The Warriors sent Claxton to the line repeatedly as they built a second-quarter lead as large as 17. When the Nets erased their lead with a 19-5 run in the third quarter, they continued to Hack-a-Clax until the two-minute mark, when it becomes illegal to intentionally foul a player who does not have the ball.
Even if the Nets despise it, it’s a sound strategy.
Claxton’s regression as a free throw shooter has been notable, despite his strides as a player on both ends of the floor. Brooklyn’s starting centre is shooting 11% worse from the foul line after breaking Shaquille O’Neale’s record of 10 straight missed free throws before the first make in Game 4 of last season’s playoff sweep against Boston. He started the night one-of-six from the charity stripe before hitting three in a row in the fourth quarter to finish 6-of-15.
When the Nets cut Golden State’s 13-point fourth-quarter lead to five with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Warriors hacked Claxton again. He missed both free throws. Head coach Jacque Vaughn decided to give his starting centre one more possession before substituting Yuta Watanabe until after the two-minute mark.
It’s crippling given Claxton’s importance both offensively and defensively, and it’s made worse by Durant’s absence from the lineup. He is an elite shot blocker, perimeter defender, and rim finisher — but opposing teams can intentionally foul him to send him to the line, where he struggles the most.
Claxton shot 58% from the free throw line last season. He is shooting 47% this season, and his average dropped on Sunday.
Simmons struggles just as much from the line, despite only averaging 1.5 attempts per game. He shot 60% from the line in each of his first four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers but is only shooting 43% this season in Brooklyn.
Simmons, on the other hand, was not the Warriors’ top priority on Sunday.
Perhaps the Nets can take this as a badge of honour, that the Warriors had to resort to fouling their worst free throw shooter because playing straight-up was an even game.
Claxton stated after the game that the Warriors didn’t take the Nets seriously because Durant was not on the court. The Nets are demonstrating that they are learning how to win games when their leader is unavailable.
Last season, it was all Durant wanted. Maybe these Nets aren’t the same as last year’s.