The Brooklyn Nets moved back into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference with a 139-111 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday at Barclays Center. With the Philadelphia 76ers idle, Brooklyn took a half-game lead over their Atlantic Division rival in the hunt for No. 1 seed.
Nets star Kevin Durant posted 17 points without missing a shot in his return from a hamstring injury. It was the small forward's first time on the court since posting 20 points in 33 minutes against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13. Yet Brooklyn's Big Three was still missing a key cog with guard James Harden sidelined by his own hamstring issue for at least 10 days.
That didn't bother the Nets (36-16) on Wednesday as they took down an equally short-handed Pelicans team (22-29) playing its second game in as many nights after falling to the Atlanta Hawks on the road Tuesday.
Kevin Durant, SF, Brooklyn Nets: 17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists
Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets: 24 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds
Eric Bledsoe, SG, New Orleans Pelicans: 26 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assists
Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans: 16 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds
Durant's Perfect Return
The Brooklyn Nets didn't compromise on their stance to take things slow with Durant's hamstring injury even after the star player was cleared to return on Wednesday.
Head coach Steve Nash kept Durant out of the starting lineup in an attempt to better manage his minutes and used the extra time on the sidelines to allow the forward to continue warming up. After receiving treatment in the locker room and returning to the bench in the second quarter, Durant finally took the floor with 7:37 left in the first half.
It was well worth the wait for Nets fans.
Durant knocked down his first shot—a mid-range jumper—almost immediately after taking the floor and wouldn't miss a shot for the remainder of the night. After posting nine points in 8 minutes to close out the first half, Durant ramped things up further following the intermission.
Durant started the third quarter and made it possible so the rest of the reserves could handle the fourth as he began drilling three-pointers and dishing out assists.
Durants final line: 5-of-5 from the field, 5-of-5 from the free throw line, 2-of-2 from three-point range with seven rebounds, five assists and one block.
The forward may still need to shake off a bit more rust before he's playing 40 minutes per night and controlling the scoring, but there were hardly any concerns with his performance on Wednesday as the Nets coasted to an easy victory in the forward's return.
Pelicans Give Up Three-Point Barrage Again
There's no question it's been a rough stretch for the Pelicans lately.
Brandon Ingram, Kira Lewis Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Josh Hart are all nursing various injuries, Lonzo Ball continues to struggle with facilitating on offense and the schedule isn't doing the team many favors.
Yet that doesn't make it any easier to watch the Pelicans backcourt get shredded on defense.
One night after the Atlanta Hawks torched New Orleans by going 20-of-31 from behind the arc on Tuesday—including an 11-of-11 stretch from deep in the third quarter—the Pelicans allowed the Nets to make 19-of-41 three-pointers in another rout.
New Orleans, meanwhile, sank just 6-of-27 shots from behind the arc.
The Pelicans were tied with the Sacramento Kings for the worst three-point defense (39.3 percent allowed) ahead of their matchup with the Nets. They're likely to take sole possession of that stat after another abysmal showing on Wednesday.
Things got so out of hand in Brooklyn that neither Ball, Zion Williamson or Eric Bledsoe played more than 29 minutes. The trio sat for the majority of the fourth quarter as Brooklyn took a 115-82 lead into the final frame.
That led to Williamson failing to post at least 20 points for the first time in 26 regular season games. If the Pelicans can't slow down teams from deep in a three-point-happy league, losses like Wednesday's will remain all too common.
The Nets host the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers at Barclays Center on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC in the second and final meeting between the clubs in the regular season. Brooklyn won the first game, 109-98, on Feb. 18. The Pelicans, meanwhile, return home for a game against the 76ers on Friday at 8 p.m. ET.