With an emphatic finish, the Brooklyn Nets flew past the Houston Rockets and into first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2003 with a 120-108 win on Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
A ferocious 22-2 run in the back half of the fourth quarter finished the deal as the Nets won for the ninth time in 11 games since the All-Star break and the 19th time in their last 22 games overall in rising to 33-15, enough for a half-game edge on second-place Philadelphia.
“First and foremost, really proud of our guys,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “They’ve had a lot thrown at them this year. We’ve had a lot of different lineups, tough schedule, and a new group. We’ve had three new groups in a sense, so for them to stick together, to continue to pursue what we’re asking them to pursue, big picture and in the short term with the details, it’s impressive. First half was the doldrums, especially the first quarter, to a tee. But second half was outstanding effort and improved physicality. So that again I’d say we’re really proud for what they’ve accomplished considering everything that’s been thrown at them.”
Doldrums is one of the phrases Nash had used before the game to describe Brooklyn’s recent play — malaise was another — and the first half looked like more of the same as the Nets fell behind by 18 points in the opening minutes before cutting the deficit to 11 points at halftime.
They shook it off decisively after halftime, outscoring Houston 63-40 in the second half, including 34-21 in the fourth quarter. The Nets shot 61.9 percent over those final 12 minutes, making 5-of-8 3-pointers.
Meanwhile the Rockets, after a blistering start offensively, cratered, making 6-of-31 3-pointers over the final three quarters.
“Some of it’s make or miss. Some of it's the ebb and flow of the game, they came out hot, we came out cold and obviously it reversed a little bit by the end,” said Nash. “But part of that is that we turned the dial up. We gave them too many mental errors in the first half, too many lackadaisical efforts, late close-outs, missed reads. And so they're able to get in rhythm. And then it was one of those nights where everything's going into the basket gets bigger and they continue on that. And conversely for us, we weren't making anything but the harder we played the tougher we got; then our ball started going in as well. So you know, there's a lesson in there for us, but at the same time, I thought overall, you’re just grateful that they did come around for us, but most importantly, we got more physical and defended and caring. And that was the difference in the game.”
The Nets went into the fourth quarter down a point after briefly taking a one-point lead, their first of the game, late in the third quarter. But they were down 101-95 with seven minutes to go before reeling of 12 straight points to take the lead for good.
Nic Claxton scored twice, first finishing a roll with a feed from Kyrie Irving, then dunking back Irving’s miss on a baseline jumper. Irving drove the lane and kicked out to Joe Harris for a 3-pointer and a 102-101 lead, and Blake Griffin followed with a 3-pointer to put the Nets up 105-101 with 4:35 remaining. A Harris drive made it 107-101 Nets with 3:30 to go.
The run ballooned into into a decisive 22-2 surge, with consecutive 3-pointers from Griffin and Harris putting the Nets up 117-103 with a minute to go.
Irving finished with a double-double while scoring 31 points and 12 assists, his most as a Net. Five of those assists came in the fourth quarter as Irving’s distribution helped fuel Brooklyn’s big finish.
“Houston was playing very aggressive on their pick-and-rolls, also on my pindowns,” said Irving. “Everywhere I went, they were sending two or three bodies like almost every other team does on my iso, so I was just trying to make the easy plays and guys converted tonight. We're just playing off one another. It's the easy energy of basketball when you're playing the right way like that, and any lead can erase when you're playing that style of basketball with pace. You're getting stops, you're getting rebounds and you're doing some of the monotonous details that other teams can forget about, including ourselves, so we just boxed out, did literally simple things to create opportunities for us on the offensive end. Started to turn them over, started to hit some shots.
Harris scored 28 points, making 7-of-12 3-pointers and shooting 10-of-17 overall, and Claxton had 12 points and eight rebounds, shooting 6-of-7 from the field. Griffin finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
James Harden finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, but left the game with 4:48 remaining in the third quarter and did not return, due to right hamstring tightness.
Brooklyn’s early hole came after the Rockets made eight of their first nine shots, including all five of their 3-point attempts, in jumping out to a 24-6 lead five minutes into the game. Irving scored eight straight points with a pair of threes to wake things up, but the Rockets continued to roll on the offensive end in shooting 15-of-19 overall and 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the first quarter and taking a 42-29 lead.
Irving and Harden combined for 26 of Brooklyn’s first-quarter points. By halftime, Irving had 18 and Harden had 17, but the Nets made just 4-of-18 3-pointers in the first half and trailed by 68-57.
They were down 82-69 with five minutes to go in the third quarter when Irving started a 12-0 run with six striaght points, then found Griffin cutting baseline for a tumbling reverse layup and a three-point play. Irving dished to Harris for the 3-pointer that brought the Nets within 82-81. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 3-pointer soon put Brooklyn up 86-85, its first lead of the game. That didn’t last, but neither did the 87-86 lead the Rockets took into the fourth quarter.
“We talked about it at halftime,” said Nash. “They know. They know. They’re professional basketball players. They know that it wasn’t good enough, wasn’t tough enough, mentally weren’t locked in and didn’t give the effort or the respect that was deserved. It doesn’t matter what’s said or who said it. We talked it over, they took the challenge. That’s what matters. You can talk until you’re blue in the face and they don’t take the challenge, it doesn’t matter. They had pride and they had respect for each other and they went out competed and were unbelievable in the second half. It’s not perfect, but it was a heck of an effort losing James, Kevin (Durant) out, Landry (Shamet) out, LaMarcus (Aldridge) not playing yet. It was I thought an outstanding effort and I’m proud of them and made up for a very painful first quarter or so.”