Against all odds, Saturday was a big Nets night in the big city. No Kevin Durant and no Kyrie Irving is supposed to mean no chance when the Nets fall behind by 23 points, home or away.
An Irving trade demand on top of that is supposed to mean a Nets blowout loss, followed by another press conference that devolves into a theater of the absurd.
But somehow, some way, Cam Thomas scored 44 points in 29 minutes off the bench, and Edmond Sumner scored 29 as the starter in Irving’s spot at the point, giving the Nets a wild 125-123 victory over the Wizards at Barclays Center. It didn’t matter that injuries — both real and imagined — had knocked the home team down to eight available bodies.
Irving’s sudden onset of calf soreness couldn’t stop the Nets from solidifying their hold on fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, his talent for destroying all basketball dreams in his midst remains undefeated, as the stunning Nets comeback didn’t change the fact that the seventh-place Knicks now account for the more stable New York City option for the foreseeable future.
Put aside the dispiriting developments at the Garden on Saturday night. The Clippers won in overtime, 134-128, after the Knicks failed to grab a defensive rebound and allowed Nicolas Batum to hit a tying 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer.
Jalen Brunson was his usual terrific self, scoring 41 points and dishing seven assists against one turnover in leading the Knicks’ own dramatic comeback (they were down 17 in the fourth), but RJ Barrett couldn’t put it in the ocean and the Knicks couldn’t cope.
The good news? They’ve got a championship-level quarterback at age 26, and they’ve got Julius Randle back to playing at an All-Star level. They’ve got a potential star in Barrett at age 22, another burgeoning talent in Quentin Grimes at age 22, and 11 first-round picks over the next seven years.
The Nets? In Irving, Durant, and the long-since departed James Harden, their scorecard shows nothing but superstar trade demands within one year. The Big 3 has become The Big Flee, and oh by the way, Ben Simmons just spent another game in street clothes.
The Nets can’t possibly continue on with Irving, after all the damage he has inflicted on the franchise, and they can’t possibly get a worthy package of assets for him in a trade. And there’s virtually no chance Durant will stick around long-term if Irving is gone.
So if you were an NBA player right now hunting for a new address, the Garden should look more appealing than Barclays Center. And that’s not how this was expected to play out after the way free agency unfolded in 2019.
The Knicks had famously cleared out salary-cap space to sign Durant and Irving, only to watch both take their talents to Brooklyn instead. Feeling exposed once again, the Knicks countered by signing Randle as a consolation prize and by issuing an apology to their customers.
“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news,” read a statement from team president Steve Mills, “we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through the draft, targeted free agents and continuing to build around our core of young players.”
It sounded like a practical joke, and Mills was fired seven months later. Leon Rose, longtime agent, was hired to run basketball operations, and Tom Thibodeau, veteran coach, was hired to put a competent Knicks product on the floor.
Thibs did just that in Season 1, making the Knicks the feel-good story of the league as they gave the city something to cheer while it pulled through the pandemic. Season 2 was a depressing step back, and now Season 3 has represented a return to relevance, in large part because Rose gave Knicks fans something they’ve coveted for the longest time:
A point guard who knew how to play the city game.
Brunson absolutely should’ve been an All-Star, but in the end nobody outside of his inner circle really cares about that. Brunson has been a true treat to watch.
In fact, he has been the most reliable playmaker in town despite having half of Irving’s physical talent — on a good day.
But Irving can be trusted only if you are banking on him to ruin your season. For starters, given his history of injury and disappearing acts, the guy isn’t available nearly enough to be worth the trouble. Over the past five seasons, Brunson has played in 327 regular-season games, or 117 more than Irving has played in.
Brunson is a pro’s pro, and someone who could help draw future free agents to the Garden. Is there anyone in the NBA not named LeBron James who actually wants to play with Irving? And is James’ interest merely a sign of his late-career desperation as he tries to win another title with a supporting Lakers cast that is weighing him down?
Either way, it is still true that the Nets have the better New York record and the better New York roster. But believe it or not, the Knicks have the better New York future.