DALLAS — As usual, ex-Net Kyrie Irving provided the drama. But Luka Doncic provided the dominance, beating Brooklyn in the clash with their former star.
The Nets faced Irving for the first time since he forced a trade out and ended their championship window.
They held him in check, but Doncic handed them a bitter 125-120 defeat before a sellout crowd of 20,238 at American Airlines Center.
For the second straight game, the Nets held a late lead. And for the second straight game, they lost it.
Doncic poured in a game-high 49 points, including nine in a 10-2 run to turn a five-point Nets cushion with 2:10 left into a tough loss.
Doncic’s one-handed, 25-foot banked 3-pointer with 26.6 seconds had even the Mavs star laughing, had Dallas leading 123-120 and had the Nets reeling.
“When somebody makes a one-handed 3 off the glass, what can you do?” said Cam Thomas, who had a team-high 30 points in a rare start. “I just saw it kept going. ‘That might hit the backboard.’ Like, ‘Ah, nah. No way he just made that.’ ”
But he made it; a special player making a special play.
It just happened to be the other special player in Dallas, not the one who had given the Nets such headaches in Brooklyn and then had the last laugh on Friday.
“What makes teams very special at the end of the day is they have dudes who can make tough shots just like Donovan [Mitchell] did against us the first night [against the Cavaliers on Wednesday], Luka did [Friday],” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “That’s the difference in layers of the league. And we’ll grow to understand how to make plays like that at the end of the night.”
The Nets had those players; three of them to be exact.
But James Harden tired of Irving and forced a trade in 2022, and Irving tired of the franchise and demanded a trade that led to Kevin Durant asking out as well.
“It was just another game, man, to be honest with you,” Irving said. “I don’t know if it’s just a media thing against your former team to have this angst, this anger going against them. But for me personally, it was just another game going against some of my brothers in the league.”
The Nets smothered Irving, who played with ‘No Fear’ on his right shoe and ‘Free All The Oppressed’ on his left.
He was held to 17 points, 6 of 17 shooting and a team-worst minus-7.
“We changed coverages throughout the course of the night to give different looks,” Vaughn said. “Guys were mentally in it to respond. It started with the physicality and so we contested a lot of shots.”
Including Doncic’s backbreaker.
It’s just that in the latter case, it didn’t matter.
“I mean, I get the Luka Magic thing and all that … but even he smiled at that,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 23 points and eight assists while shooting 6 of 12 from deep in his return to Dallas after arriving in the Irving trade.
With starters Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson both out, Dorian Finney-Smith — also making his return to Dallas — got the nod at center, joining Thomas in a smallball starting lineup.
Reluctant to use drop coverage because of Doncic and Irving, the Nets went back to switching. It only worked against Irving.
In a 48-44 hole late in the first half, Dinwiddie’s three 3-pointers sparked an 11-2 run to go up 55-50.
Thomas scored the Nets’ first seven points in the fourth quarter, a nine-foot floater giving them a 96-90 cushion with 10:29 left.
Dinwiddie made it 106-99 on a pullup.
And he found Royce O’Neale for consecutive 3s to give them a 118-113 lead with 2:36 left. But they couldn’t hold it.
Or Doncic snatched it away.
His corner 3 put Dallas ahead, 119-118, and his 25-foot bank shot was the dagger.
“They just got stops,” said Mikal Bridges, who had 18 points on 6 of 17 shooting. “Personally, I’m not executing. So I’m just you know, not helping my team out. But Luka got it going, just doing what you do. Just missing shots, I’m missing layups, missing some of my teammates open. I’ve just got to be better.”
Irving got the last laugh, having a friendly mentor-mentee chat with Thomas.
“It was just a big brother being proud of his little bro, just doing what I’m doing these first two games,” Thomas said. “Obviously, I’d rather have the wins, but he was just telling me that he’s proud of me and how I’ve been playing. It means a lot.”