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Great players aren’t always great. Just when they need to be.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were just that Wednesday night.
With the Nets’ heretofore-stout defense suddenly looking like a sieve, Durant and Irving shook off a slow first half with a stellar second to lead Brooklyn to a 145-141 come-from-behind gut check over the previously unbeaten Hawks at Barclays Center.
Durant had 16 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, when the Nets outscored Atlanta 44-37. And Irving poured in 17 of his 25 in the final period, when the Nets turned a three-point deficit into a victory.
“Well, you know, obviously, we want to win the game. But, you know, we always are looking at the big picture,” Nets coach Steve Nash said before the game. “So I think we’ll be a good team. I want us to have a great record and win a lot of games, but I’m also looking at how are we playing? How are we growing? How are we doing it in a smart manner?
“So we’re here to win [against Atlanta]. But that’s not necessarily … we don’t go into this game saying ‘this is a must win.’ It’s a must-win just because we love to win basketball games, but I don’t think we’re worried about going under 500.”
The Nets (3-2) just barely escaped that fate, thanks to an impressive offensive display. They shot 54 percent and 46.3 percent from deep on a night they couldn’t slow the Hawks, much less stop them. The Nets put seven players in double figures, with Joe Harris (23 points, 6 of 8 from deep) getting hot from the outside and the stars taking over in crunch time.
Irving and Durant came in No. 1 and 2 in the NBA in plus-minus by a wide margin. The Nets had been a plus-64 in 95 minutes with their stars on the court together, but minus-17 in 102 minutes without both playing. After sitting out Monday (on the tail end of a back-to-back), it took them awhile to get going against Atlanta.
The Nets’ previously stout defense let point guard Trae Young (30 points, 11 assists) and power forward John Collins (30 points, 10 rebounds) get wherever and whatever they wanted, falling behind early.
The Nets trailed 47-40 after De’Andre Hunter’s 3-pointer, having allowed 64 percent shooting and 7 of 13 from deep. And while they tightened the defense up just enough to let their offense get them back in the game, it wasn’t enough.
The Hawks led 68-67 after a first half in which Irving mustered just four points and missed nine of 10 shots, and all five from deep. Taurean Prince (12 points) and Landry Shamet (14 points) — both struggling badly coming in — went a combined 10-for-10 and kept them in it with encouraging bounce-back efforts. But the defense never found a way to slow Atlanta.
After clawing ahead 76-74 on a Harris left corner 3-pointer, the Nets surrendered eight straight unanswered points, the last by Young to fall back behind 82-76.
The Nets pulled even again at 94-all in the third, but surrendered a 9-1 run, a Solomon Hill 3-pointer making it 103-95. The last period was a tooth-and-nail affair, coming right down to the final minutes.
With the score knotted at 120-all, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot got in the paint and kicked out to Harris for a corner 3 that put Brooklyn ahead for good. Irving’s 3-pointer made it 130-126 with 4:32 remaining.
Another Irving 3-pointer made it 137-132 with 2:01 to play, and his bucket with 32 seconds left in regulation put the Nets up 139-136. They held onto that lead for dear life.
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