Just imagine for a second if the Cavaliers hadn't played last night and LeBron James were home watching the Knicks and Nets on the dish. Why would he be watching that game, you ask? Remember: this is make believe.
James sees the Knicks go up 16 on the Nets in the first quarter. He probably automatically rules New Jersey out this summer. But if he continued watching, James would have changed his mind.
In all likelihood, James has probably ruled out both teams and will return to Cleveland. But if this were the King James Bowl, the winner in a landslide was the Nets. It's not only because they beat the Knicks by 20 points. It’s also because of the fight they displayed, the improvement you’re seeing from some of their players and the unity they are showing despite being 7-55.
The Knicks are terrible, and they're showing no fight. They don't play defense, and when they can't hit shots -- they were an NBA-worst 0-for-18 from three -- they can't beat anyone. But this is more about the Nets and the play of their three top young players.
After two sub-par games and a first quarter in which Devin Harris looked like he would rather be anywhere but in this game, the Nets' point guard wound up turning the calendar back to last season. He had the Knicks baffled as he drove at, around and through them and hit some acrobatic layups and long-range jumpers en route to a season-best 31 points.
His backcourt mate, Courtney Lee, back from a three-game absence because of sprained left ankle, picked up right where he left off. In the win at Boston last Saturday, Lee hit some of the game's biggest shots before spraining his ankle. He came back against the Knicks and didn’t miss a beat or many shots. He was 9-of-16, including 5-of-7 from three, and finished with 25 points.
And the man in the middle, Brook Lopez, had a similar start as Harris. He had as many fouls as points in the first quarter and couldn’t get off the court quick enough. But Lopez had a terrific second quarter and finished with another double-double.
This is what the Nets imagined when the season started, back when Lawrence Frank was the coach and the mission was to disprove the critics who said this team would be one of the worst in history. The pundits have been proven right, but the Nets believe they’re coming together.
“I think we’ll be a pretty good team finishing the rest of the season,” Lee said.
The backcourt has been the difference because Lopez has been strong all season. Injuries have slowed Harris, but recently, you've seen the player he was last season. Lee has quietly put together a solid season and has been nothing short of spectacular as of late. He’s arguably the Nets best one-on-one defender. He can create shots for himself, and lately he’s been hitting everything. Lee has had at least 20 points in three straight games on 27-of-46 shooting.
“He looked good,” Harris said. “His touches continued from before he got hurt and he’s playing at a high level. Hopefully we can continue to get that type of Courtney Lee effort we got tonight.”
If the Nets’ trio continues to play this way, they could get their elusive second consecutive win Monday in Memphis, and they should avoid the mark for fewest wins in an NBA season. Those three could help recruit free agents this off-season. It probably won’t be James, but if you add a high-scoring small forward like Rudy Gay or a proven big man like Amar’e Stoudemire, and that doesn’t include who the Nets get in the draft.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)