SACRAMENTO — The Nets have perfected the art of the comeback, but no one could have expected them to dig their way out of a 28-point third-quarter hole that was only down to 25 at the start of the fourth quarter. But that’s exactly what they did as Kenny Atkinson inserted benchwarmers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Treveon Graham and Jared Dudley for a spark of life and they fed super-hot D’Angelo Russell, who scored 27 of his career-high 44 points in the fourth quarter.
After forcing a turnover by Kings rookie Marvin Bagley III with 5.9 seconds left in a tie game, they gave the ball to Hollis-Jefferson and he drove down the lane to score the winning layup with 0.8 seconds left in the Nets’ 123-121 victory. When a desperation full-court heave by Buddy Hield missed at the buzzer, the Nets’ bench stormed the court and celebrated the improbable win Tuesday night at Golden 1 Center.
The Nets are the fourth team in NBA history to come back from a deficit of 25 points or more in the second half.
The Nets (37-36) climbed back above the .500 mark and snapped a three-game losing streak with the win. Russell shot 17-for-33 for the game, including 10-for-15 in the fourth quarter, and he added 12 assists. Hollis-Jefferson, who didn’t play until the fourth quarter had 14 points. Bagley led the Kings (34-36) with 28 points, and De’Aaron Fox had 27 points and nine assists.
Atkinson said the veterans at the end of the bench actually spent the morning playing five-on-five with members of the training staff just to maintain their condition. When he put them in, there was no expectation of any miracles.
“We were at our wit’s end,” Atkinson said. “It was desperation. We turned to that group, and it was a little bit to conserve our main guys and play it out. I wasn’t expecting an amazing comeback. I have to be honest. Then, slowly but surely we started cutting the lead. We got it to 12, and I thought, ‘Wait a second, this is possible.’ We cut it to 10, and it was game on.”
Trailing by 25 points entering the fourth quarter, the Nets found the wherewithal to stage one of their trademark rallies, opening with a 26-6 run to cut their deficit to 109-104 with 4:43 left to play on a pair of foul shots by Russell. Hollis-Jefferson provided a spark off the bench with 10 points in that stretch, and Russell matched him.
At one stage, Russell scored 16 straight Nets points to cut their deficit to one point, and then Dudley drained a go-ahead three with 1:11 left to play. The Kings tied it on a pair of Fox foul shots before Bagley’s turnover, set up the winning play by Hollis-Jefferson, who also forced Bagley’s turnover.
Describing the final play, Hollis-Jefferson said it was designed for Russell, but he was blanketed and had to pass to Hollis-Jefferson. “I was going to give it back to him, but he looked at the clock and was like, ‘Go, go, go,’” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I put it into fifth or sixth gear and went to the basket.”
Asked how the postgame celebration felt at midcourt, Hollis-Jefferson smiled and said, “It was amazing. It’s my first game-winner. I kind of got a little teary-eyed. It was an unbelievable feeling. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to play with.”
At the outset of the third quarter, the Kings opened with a 20-0 run to take their biggest lead at 86-58. All seemed lost at that point. But when Russell caught fire in the fourth quarter, there was no stopping him.
“Our bench was alive, too,” Russell said. “When we started making shots, it was quiet in the arena. All I could hear was our bench. Once you get in a groove, it’s hard to get someone out of it . . . We knew coming in it was win by any means.”