INDIANAPOLIS - Lenn Robbins - Undermanned and playing the second game of a grueling back-to-back against the two best teams in the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets had every excuse to warm up the buses when they fell behind the Indiana Pacers by double digits in the third quarter Saturday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But in one of the strongest statements that the 2014 Nets are far superior to the 2013 version, Brooklyn battled back.
The Pacers took a 58-47 lead with 8:24 left in the third. Coach Jason Kidd called a timeout and the Nets responded. They went on a 19-9 surge to close to within 67-66 and entered the fourth quarter down 72-70.
It was a gritty effort for a team without Andrei Kirilenko (calf) and Andray Blatche (hip). And the Nets were coming off a 120-95 loss Friday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which has the best record in the NBA.
But Shaun Livingston, playing a tremendous game on both ends, and Kevin Garnett, giving away three inches and 40 pounds, battled Roy Hibbert for every inch in the paint.
When Livingston put in a short one-hander with 5:10 left, the Nets were within 85-83 and Pacers coach Frank Vogel was calling for time. The Pacers (36-10), the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, closed out the win 97-96 but not before some late drama.
Joe Johnson's , made it a 94-93 game with 8.5 seconds left. Johnson heard it from Pacers fans all night who felt that Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn, deserved an All-Star berth over Johnson.
Johnson finished with 16. Stephenson had 14.
After David West hit two foul shots for Indy, Paul Pierce missed a deep 3 from the left corner. Pierce had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. West hit one more free throw and Deron Williams made a 3 but only four-tenths of a second remained.
Livingston finished with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Garnett had 12 points and nine boards. Paul George and Hibbert had 20 each for Indiana. George, harassed by Livingston and Alan Anderson, was held to 7-of-19 shooting.
The Pacers beat the Nets twice in a five-day span in late December. In both games the Nets caved in the third quarter, getting outscored 30-19 in a 103-86 loss, and 28-20 in a 105-91 defeat.
When the Pacers opened the third quarter on 12-2 run, the 2014 Nets responded. The days of folding appear over.
Williams returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 4, when he sprained his left ankle for the third time. He returned on Jan. 20, but offered to come off the bench as to not interfere with the team's chemistry.
The Nets (20-25) opened 2014 with 10 wins in 11 games. They now have lost three straight. Williams struggled, going 3-for-12 from the field.