The Brooklyn Nets didn’t leave Philadelphia in first place on Wednesday night, but they left feeling just fine anyway.
They were down 22 early in the fourth quarter and head coach Steve Nash had turned the game over to a reserve group. Five minutes later they were within three points before the Sixers held on for a 123-117 win over the Nets.
“We feel good about the way we played tonight,” said Nash. “We played hard. We played together. You could tell our group fought for each other. You could see the guys on the bench cheering for that bench squad that was in there in the second half. it shows our connectivity and our growth as a group and that these guys care about each other and that’s really important. Win or lose, that’s something that we don’t want to ever be in doubt. To see that tonight and a performance in a tough loss it made us all feel really proud of the group.”
With the win, the Sixers took a one-game lead for first place on the 37-18 Nets with 17 games to play. They also clinched the three-game season series, and will hold a head-to-head tie-breaker should the two teams finish the season where they began last night.
This matchup of conference front-runners started out short on starpower from the Brooklyn side, with Kevin Durant and James Harden among the deep list of those unavailable for the Nets. Maybe it was appropriate they closed it the same way, even after Kyrie Irving scored 37 points.
“We're just proud of the guys out there,” said Irving. “They handled business and they learned a lot about themselves and that's all you can ask. Obviously the regular season means a lot in terms of standings and stuff like that but when you get the opportunity to put a group of guys out there that are hungry to play and want to figure out how to win against a great ball club then hey rightfully so we give them that respect and we give them that trust and they went out and did it. So it was easy to watch from the sidelines but my performance kind of gets thrown under the rug.
“I wish obviously we could have finished the game as a group but they were up 18 when I came out of the game. Hey, they're playing better, they're playing with more resolve, they're playing with more energy. Leave that group in and let them rock. My night was done regardless but I'm happy to see us be on the sideline and those guys handling the business.”
Moments after Irving left the game with 8:35 remaining, Furkan Korkmaz made a 3-pointer to put Philadelphia up 112-90. That turned out to be the last shot the Sixers made all night.
With Bruce Brown, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Nic Claxton, Alize Johnson and Landry Shamet on the floor — Shamet the only one of the night’s starters after making just his second start of the season — the Nets reeled off a 21-2 run over the next six minutes to get within 114-111 with 2:14 remaining.
“We were just out there playing hard, playing together against the right spots, knocking down shots when we needed to,” said Brown. “We just had a defensive plan to front Joel (Embiid), they were trying to force it and we got stops.”
They got no closer, though they were still within 118-115 with just over a minute remaining before the Sixers finally closed them out from the foul line.
“Still more work to be done,” said Johnson. “I feel like we should have won that, if you ask me. Next time we’re in that position, we’re gonna get it. That’s just my mentality.”
Irving shot 13-for-21 and had nine assists while putting up his team-high 13th 30-point game of the season, and DeAndre Jordan posted a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds, plus five assists.
Shamet scored 17 points, Jeff Green had 15 and Brown scored 14. Johnson had eight points and eight rebounds and the Nets were a team-high plus-16 in his 12 minutes on the floor.
Philadelphia jumped out to a 15-6 lead before Irving got rolling for Brooklyn. He had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the game’s first 10 minutes and briefly put the Nets into the lead, 24-23, after consecutive baskets. But the Sixers took a 32-28 lead into the second quarter and stretched that into a 12-point advantage midway through the quarter.
Irving’s four free throws in the final seconds of the half brought the Nets within seven at the break, and he went into halftime with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven assists.
Brooklyn was shooting 56.4 percent at halftime, but had attempted just eight 3-pointers and made two, while the Sixers shot 55.6 percent overall and 58.3 percent (7-of-12) on 3-pointers.
Philadephia pushed its lead to 16 points with an 85-69 advantage with 4:30 to go in the quarter. Irving led a Brooklyn burst at that point, scoring six points in an 8-0 run, with his two free throws bringing the Nets within 85-77 before the Sixers took a 94-84 lead into the fourth quarter.
With a 15-4 run to open the fourth, Philadelphia opened up a 21-point lead in making six of its first seven shots in the period and going up 109-88 with nine minutes remaining.
After the Sixers went up 112-90, Brown launched the Brooklyn comeback with a 3-pointer followed by two free throws. Claxton scored, Luwawu-Cabarrot made one of two free throws, then finished a drive that made it a 10-0 run and a 12-point game with five minutes to go.
After Tobias Harris made two free throws for the Sixers, Shamet hit a jumper, Johnson put back a rebound, and Luwawu-Cabarrot turned a Claxton steal into a breakout layup. Johnson made two free throws, Claxton made 1-of-2, and another Johnson rebound basket had the Nets within 114-111 with 2:14 remaining.
“They're a really good team,” said Nash of the Sixers. “They played well. They made threes tonight. So they had a pretty well-rounded performance and they got separation. That's to be expected when we're shorthanded; we’re not as deep as we normally are with playmakers. So overall I thought the guys did great to find a way back in the game. Had a couple chances to cut it to three, or four, and just proud of the fight. You're not gonna win them all, but if you play like that you're gonna improve all the time and give ourselves a chance to get better.”