On Saturday, the Nets lost a so-called "statement game to a Suns team on a 16-game winning streak. Understandable. But it would have been a far more damaging statement had the Nets lost to the crosstown rival Knicks after coughing up a 16-point third-quarter lead.
But the Nets narrowly averted disaster after a fourth quarter with 10 lead changes before they pulled out a 112-110 win Tuesday night at Barclays Center. It was thanks to a pair of clinching foul shots by unlikely Nets hero James Johnson with 2.2 seconds left for the winning margin.
Credit TNT announcer Reggie Miller with a pregame assist that aroused James Harden, who led the Nets (15-6) with 34 points and added 10 rebounds and eight assists. After the loss to the Suns, Harden said he was unsure of whether to emphasize playmaking, as he did last season while playing with Kyrie Irving, or whether he needs to revert to Harden the scorer since Irving has not complied with the New York City vaccine mandate and is not with the team.
Coach Steve Nash encouraged Harden before the game to just attack the rim, and apparently, Hall of Famer Miller did much the same. Harden scored 15 first-quarter points and had 28 by halftime.
Harden smiled when Miller’s TV commentary was relayed to him. "Yeah, it was definitely that," Harden said. "Reggie is the one that got me going. He got me going for sure. But yeah, it was just ultimate confidence, the best-player-in-the-league type of mindset. That was motivation before the game, something I needed."
Kevin Durant had a rare poor shooting night, making just 9 of 23 shots for his 27 points, and rookie Cam Thomas added 12 points.
The Knicks (11-10) got 25 points from Alec Burks, Julius Randle added 24 points plus nine rebounds and eight assists, and Derrick Rose had 16 points and nine assists. But they shot only 12 free throws compared to 25 for the Nets.
At halftime, the Nets trailed by one point, but Patty Mills buried back-to-back threes to trigger a 14-0 Nets run to open the third quarter and give them a 74-61 lead. They led by as much as 16 points, but the Knicks ended the period on a 16-4 run, including six points each by Randle and Evan Fournier to cut their deficit to 88-84.
The Knicks gained a 92-90 lead on a three-pointer by Immanuel Quickley with 8:53 left in the final quarter. The teams traded the lead 10 times before Fournier swished a three-pointer to tie the score at 117 with 17 seconds left.
The Nets set up a play for Durant but he was forced far out about the three-point line and found a cutting Johnson, who was fouled by the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson.
"I tried to be patient and waited for it to open up, and James became available and went down the lane," Durant said. "Patty was open in the corner and LaMarcus [Aldridge] was under the rim, but he was aggressive to the rim and was able to knock those free throws down. Huge play."
The Knicks’ Rose, who was going to double-team Durant, said he was uncertain of the call.
"[It] looked like Mitch hit all ball, but at the end of the game, they probably were going to call that because he kind of whacked at the ball," Rose said. "It is what it is."
That was a relief for the Nets in front of a sellout home crowd of 18,081 that seemed to include just as many Knicks fans as Nets fans.
"The energy is always going to be there," Harden said of the local rivalry. "Tonight, we were just happy to come away with a win. We did things necessary down the stretch on the defensive end to come away with the win."