DENVER — In the span of 12 games this season, the Nets have shown unmistakable growth in the petri dish of pressure at the end of games.
In Game 1, emerging star Caris LeVert faulted himself for rushing a potential tying shot in the final seconds.
But there was LeVert on Friday night at Pepsi Center, isolated against Nuggets defender Gary Harris and bouncing the ball as the clock ticked down before making his move on the clear-out. LeVert flashed past Harris, rose in the lane and hit a floater with three-tenths of a second left to give the Nets a 112-110 victory over the tough Nuggets and extend their winning streak to three games.
It was the second game-winning shot of the season for LeVert, who made one in the home opener against the Knicks. It gave the Nets (6-6) a 3-2 record in one-possession games, which is a monumental improvement over last season.
“I think it’s maturity,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I just think we’re growing. We’re getting a little bit older. I’ll give a shout-out to our vets, too. Even the end-of-game play, where Jared Dudley [inbounded], he took his time and handed it to Caris. Just little stuff like that maybe last year we didn’t have. It shows.”
Indeed it does. The Nets blew a 14-point second-quarter lead and a six-point lead at the start of a fourth quarter that featured nine ties and eight lead changes. They got overpowered by 7-1 Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who had 37 points and 21 rebounds. But with the score tied at 110, Dudley forced a traveling violation by Jokic with 22.1 seconds to play.
“Jokic was Shaq-ing it the whole night,” Dudley said of his inside scoring. “My whole thing was to force him to have to go baseline. He kept going over the middle to score the hook shot. So it was more of a read for me. He goes baseline, I kind of pushed Jarrett [Allen] into him a little bit. I don’t know if that helped with the travel, but we’ll take it. And Caris was Caris.”
Atkinson put the ball in LeVert’s hands, as he generally does, and again was rewarded. Asked if he was surprised by how Harris got into his body, LeVert said: “I thought he was going to scoot back at one point, but he kind of pressed up the whole time. I saw it and I just took it.”
Clearly, LeVert is growing more comfortable by the game as the Nets’ primary go-to guy, especially on isolation plays. “I’m very comfortable,” he said. “Coach trusts me with the ball in that situation to kind of have the ball and everybody just get out of the way. That’s a great feeling to have as a player. That’s what you dream about when you’re a kid.”
LeVert totaled 17 points and forced the Nuggets’ Harris into a 1-for-11 shooting night. Just as importantly, D’Angelo Russell played well at both ends, leading the Nets with 23 points and holding Jamal Murray of the Nuggets (9-3) to 16. Second-year center Allen also was huge for the Nets with 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots.
Speaking of the hard-nosed defense and focus the Nets showed down the stretch, Russell couldn’t help but think of his turnover earlier this season in New Orleans that led to the Pelicans’ winning basket.
“We fight the whole game,” he said. “To lose the game at the end from one mental error is hard to sleep with, and I think, as a group, we’re realizing that and trying to limit those habits.”
Looks as if the Nets are developing winning habits.