The Brooklyn Nets have early bragging rights in what may be the NBA Finals matchup this season.
Brooklyn defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 109-98 in Thursday's showdown at Staples Center and improved to 19-12 on the season with its fifth consecutive win. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris led the way for the victors with Kevin Durant sidelined.
An impressive showing from LeBron James was not enough for the Anthony Davis-less Lakers, who are still an impressive 22-8 despite dropping two of the last three.
Notable Player Stats
- James Harden, G, BKN: 23 PTS, 11 AST, 5 REB, 2 STL
- Kyrie Irving, G, BKN: 16 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST
- Joe Harris, F, BKN: 21 PTS, 5 REB, 6-of-7 3PT
- LeBron James, F, LAL: 32 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST
- Kyle Kuzma, F, LAL: 16 PTS, 10 REB
James Harden Spearheads Balanced Brooklyn Attack
The Nets are clearly going to look different when Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden are on the floor together, but there was plenty of optimism coming into this game even though head coach Steve Nash told reporters "there's no timeline" for KD's return.
After all, the supporting cast was brilliant in Tuesday's win over the Phoenix Suns with Tyler Johnson, Joe Harris, Landry Shamet and Jeff Green all scoring in double figures when Durant and Irving were sidelined.
Irving was also back in the lineup for the Lakers showdown and ready to revamp his role as shooting guard alongside Harden's point guard spot.
It was more of the same right out the gates, as Harden immediately started stuffing the stat sheet by seeking out his own shots and facilitating for others. Harris and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot caught fire from deep, and Irving picked his spots while also battling for boards and setting up outside shooters.
That Irving struggled to find his form from deep and the visitors were still largely in control in part because of their outside shooting underscores just how explosive this offense will be when hitting on all cylinders.
Harden was in full control throughout with an ability to methodically work his way through the defense while seeking out mismatches and dishing whenever double teams came his way. He mixed in multiple three-pointers as well just for good measure and helped keep Los Angeles at arm's length to prevent any late-game heroics from James.
The scary thing is, this offense will be even better when Durant returns.
LeBron's Big Night Nowhere Near Enough for Shorthanded Lakers
It's become a familiar refrain for the 2020-21 Lakers, but James was once again under the spotlight and expected to carry a heavy load in Thursday's contest. Not only was AD out, but Dennis Schroder was ruled out prior to tip because of health and safety protocols.
That meant it was largely up to the 36-year-old LeBron, who came into play in the middle of the MVP race and nearly averaging a triple-double in February with 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists a night, to lead the way against a fellow championship contender.
The King once again did what he could to spearhead the Purple and Gold's attack in the early going and appeared well on his way to at least a double-double with 17 points and five assists in the first half.
After Los Angeles fell behind by double digits, James started attacking the basket and powering his way to the rim against Brooklyn's smaller lineups. What's more, Kyle Kuzma took advantage of the spacing created when the Nets collapsed on the four-time MVP's penetration and helped the home team stay within striking distance as a secondary option.
Even at this stage of his career, LeBron exploded to the rim for multiple finishes, overpowered smaller opponents in the lane, and mixed in unstoppable fadeaway jumpers.
However, the Lakers' issues were perfectly clear in the third quarter when Brooklyn's lead went from 76-65 to 20 points in less than two minutes when he was on the bench. There was only so much he could do without Davis and Schroder on the floor, especially with so much firepower on the other side.
Los Angeles might just be outmatched against the league's elite teams until Davis returns.
The Lakers host the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals rematch Saturday, while the Nets travel to face the L.A. Clippers on Sunday.