CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Nets showed they can handle the perils of playoff pressure Saturday night at Spectrum Center. They squandered all of a 19-point third-period lead and trailed by eight with just over three minutes left, but on his 23rd birthday, D’Angelo Russell scored the final 12 Nets points and finished with 40 as they rallied for a 117-115 win.
Russell had a chance to salt the game away but missed a deep three-pointer near the end of the shot clock to give the Hornets one last chance with 5.0 seconds left. Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker went up for a desperation three just before the buzzer, but the Nets’ Caris LeVert put his hands up and deflected the shot with his right elbow. Boos rained down when the referees refused to blow their whistles.
Walker declined to comment on the play, but the Hornets’ Marvin Williams said the referees blew it. “That’s a foul,” he said. “If that play happens in the third quarter or the first quarter, we get foul shots. That’s just crazy.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said his staff teaches the players to show their hands in that situation to reduce the chance of being called for a foul. “Caris got position and did a good job of showing his hands,” Atkinson said.
Immediately after the game, LeVert said he had not yet looked at a replay. “I felt it was clean,’’ he said. “I think my elbow hit it. The refs are looking for any little thing, so it’s best to show your hands. It was clean. I hit the ball first.”
The victory put the Nets (31-30) back above .500 and kept them in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the Hornets (28-31).
Russell, who also had seven assists, tied a career high with his 40 points. Joe Harris added 19 points in the arena where he won the All-Star three-point contest, and Jarrett Allen totaled 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Walker topped the Hornets with 32 points and Tony Parker had 21.
The Nets’ lead was down to six entering the final period, and the Hornets put together a 25-9 run that ended with back-to-back threes by Walker in taking a 111-103 lead with 3:12 left.
That’s when Nets All-Star Russell heated up, scoring the last 12 points in a 14-4 surge that gave the Nets a 117-115 lead with 39.8 seconds left. Russell hit a baseline jumper with 59.3 seconds left for a 114-113 lead, and after Walker responded with a layup at the other end, Russell sank a right-wing three with 39.8 seconds to go.
“He’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence,” Atkinson said. “I think the All-Star thing really helped him. He’s 23 today. Maybe those last two were birthday shots.”
Asked if he gave himself a birthday present with a 14-point fourth quarter and 6-for-15 performance from three-point range, Russell said, “The basketball gods blessed me. My teammates helped me be in position. We’ve got guys who are capable of getting hot, and we do a good job of recognizing that.”
The rest of the Nets totaled 13 points in the final period, so they concentrated on getting stops and then putting the ball in Russell’s hands.
“DLo had it going,” DeMarre Carroll said. ‘We tried setting screens to get him the ball. He had a crazy night.”
Just six days earlier, Russell made his first All-Star appearance in the same arena, and he sees himself in a different light now. “When you’ve got that All-Star badge on you, teams respect it,” Russell said. “Teams are going to game-plan for you, so you’ve got to be aggressive every night.”
On this night, his timing couldn’t have been better.