CHICAGO — The Nets had their Big 3 together for just the second time all season — and for the first time, they defeated an elite team.
Make that destroyed an elite team.
The Nets put together by far their most impressive victory of the season, routing the red-hot Bulls 138-112 before a sellout crowd of 21,698 at United Center.
Kevin Durant finished with 27 points and nine assists, while James Harden added 25 points and 16 assists. But it wasn’t just a two-man show: The Nets blew the game open with a 37-8 run and led by as many as 38 points.
The Nets (26-14) used balanced scoring and free-flowing offense, and they got every look they wanted. They shot 56.3 percent, and 17-for-32 from 3-point range to climb within 1 ½ games of first-place Chicago in the Eastern Conference.
Injured centers LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Claxton were out, but the Nets got 20 points and seven boards from rookie Day’Ron Sharpe in his first career start to cool off the Bulls, who had won 10 of their last 11.
After the Big 3 had logged just 17 minutes together previously this season, Durant and Harden each played at least 30 minutes and Kyrie Irving had nine points in 24:42 in just his third game of the season.
“I think it’s been fine. They played one game together,” Steve Nash said. “So James didn’t play Monday, so it’s really early. Anytime those three get on the court together, it’s exciting for us.
“If we can get dozens of games under our belt with those three playing, I think we can really develop something.”
What will be even more exciting is how they played together, and the impact they had.
The Nets had been 0-8 against elite teams, those clubs over .600 and in the top 4 of each conference — the kind of contenders they’re going to have to learn to beat if they want to earn their first NBA title.
“I think the guys know. They want to get a good win against Chicago because we’ve lost to them twice. … And our goal is to be ready to beat elite teams in April and May,” Nash said. “We’re not in that category. We’ve got to get there by the end of the season: That’s our goal.”
They sure looked elite Wednesday, for the first time in a long time.
The Bulls led by five early, and had it tied at 29-all on Coby White’s 3-pointer with 2:43 left in the first quarter.
But the Nets took control with an 11-2 run that spanned the first and second quarters.
Mills’ pull-up gave the Nets a 40-31 lead just 16 seconds into the second, and they never trailed again.
When the Bulls clawed within 53-51 on White’s running layup, Kyrie Irving’s first points of the night — a jumper off Durant’s pass with 3:58 left in the half — and a Blake Griffin bucket padded it back to six.
After consecutive baskets by Zack LaVine (22 points) cut the lead to 57-55, Irving ran a two-man game with Durant and answered with a 3.
Finally, when Chicago pulled even at 71-71 on a tip-in by Nikola Vucevic (14 points) with 8:43 left in the third quarter, the Nets blew the game completely open, reeling off a 42-8 run.
The first nine unanswered points were sparked by the defense. Kessler Edwards had a block and a steal, and Sharpe rejected Vucevic to lead to a Harden 3-pointer. When Harden found Edwards for a layup, the cushion was back up to 80-71.
Durant made a stellar cross-court look to find Mills for a wide-open 3-pointer and an 89-75 lead. Then he drilled a 3 of his own to make it 99-79 with 1:43 left in the third.
Durant never came off the floor in the third and had 17 points in the quarter. And by the time Mills’ free throw capped the run with 9:18 left in the fourth, the Nets were rolling. They were up 114-79 and on the way to a statement win.
“I don’t know about a statement game, but it’s a great challenge for us,” Nash said. “It’s a team that’s played extremely good basketball and has had an outstanding year and has a lot of confidence. So for us, we’ve been struggling lately. When you struggle, there’s a great opportunity to learn the most about yourself.
“It’s not all about [Wednesday], but [it] would be a great opportunity to raise your level of competition, to be as competitive as possible with ourselves to put out the best performance and continue to grow. If we are able to win, it’ll give us a lot of confidence.”
What will they get from a blowout?