It’s almost looked too easy for the Nets these last few weeks. They win against good teams, they win against bad ones, they win when they’re sloppy — like their game against the Knicks Monday — and they win with one hand tied behind their back, which is to say, without Kevin Durant.
So how about two hands tied behind their back?
Wednesday brought an additional challenge for this team — a game without both Durant, who should be out for a few more weeks, and without Kyrie Irving, who was nursing a sore right groin. And though the Nets at times looked uneven, or even overmatched, they also proved they can win this way, too. As a reward, they earned the top spot in the Eastern Conference, tying the 76ers, who lost to the Bucks in overtime. It’s the first time the Nets have been in first place since 2003.
James Harden took control throughout, and the Nets overcame a 16-point second quarter deficit to defeat the Pacers, 124-115, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was their 14th win in 15 games. Harden scored 40 points with 15 assists and 10 rebounds, making him the first player in franchise history to record 35 points or more and 15 assists or more. It was the second 40-point triple-double in franchise history, joining Vince Carter.
Nicolas Claxton and Jeff Green were also difference-makers, with Claxton scoring 11 with eight rebounds and Green scoring 15 with nine boards. Caris LeVert, playing his old team for the first time since he was moved in the Harden deal and since he had to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous mass on his kidney, had 19 points and five assists. It was the Nets seventh-straight road win, a franchise record.
"I just kept preaching to the guys before the game, next man up," Harden said. "We don’t make excuses. Guys are going to be out of the lineup, but whoever is in the lineup, whoever is suited and ready to go, [they have to be] ready to perform and do whatever it takes to help the team get the win. That’s the kind of mindset we bet on. Nothing fazes us at this point."
The Nets outscored the Pacers 66-54 in the second half, and finally broke through early in the fourth, when Harden grabbed the rebound off his own missed floater for the putback and the tie at 96 with 9:16 left in the game. Jeff Green’s free throws a little more than a minute later gave the Nets their first lead since the first quarter. Harden’s trey from the top of the key put them up 103-98 — all part of an 13-2 run.
"James is so elite," Steve Nash said. "He’s able to make the big plays that very few people can make down the stretch and when he plays that many minutes, he stuffs the stat sheet. I could go on and on about James and the nuances of what he does all night, but he definitely is a winner, a leader and an elite, elite performer."
The Nets were flat early, shooting 34.8% in the first quarter, leading to that 16-point Pacers lead early in the second quarter. Turnovers were the biggest culprit, with the Nets committing 18 turnovers for 18 points. They found their legs, though, and the basket and went to the break down only 61-59. An 11-4 run in the third got them to within 91-89.
"I thought we came out a little slow, a little flat, and we challenged them, told them it wasn’t going to be easy and that we really had to scrap today if we wanted to win it," Nash said. "I mean, what a performance. Everyone took their turn making plays for the team, putting in a good shift and it took a lot of guts to win that game, so I’m really proud of the guys for their effort."