There was drama courtside at Barclays Center on Sunday afternoon as Kyrie Irving — ineligible to play because of New York City’s COVID-19 rules — made a grand entrance in the second quarter and then watched his teammates face the Knicks from a seat across from the Nets’ bench.
There was more drama on the court as the desperate Knicks stayed close to the undermanned Nets until the very last second.
But in the end the Knicks couldn’t contain one-man band Kevin Durant, who scored a season-high 53 points in the Nets’ 110-107 victory.
"He’s one of the best to ever do it," RJ Barrett said. "So it’s tough when he gets hot like that."
Perhaps fitting for this Knicks season, Barrett (24 points) hit a free throw he was trying to miss with 2.6 seconds left and the Nets up by two.
The Nets were leading by three when they fouled Barrett rather than give up a three-point attempt. Barrett hit the first free throw and accidentally swished the second, too. Durant went on to hit two free throws with 1.8 seconds left as the Knicks suffered yet another close loss.
"My teammates were laughing at me because I was trying to miss it," Barrett said. "It ended up being the perfect free throw."
The Knicks had used an 11-2 run to take a 103-101 lead on Barrett’s driving layup with 2:52 remaining.
But Andre Drummond (18 points, 10 rebounds) tied it with a dunk and Durant hit a three-pointer with 56.3 seconds left to give the Nets the lead for good at 106-103.
Julius Randle (26 points) drove for a dunk to make it a one-point game and Durant missed a three-point attempt to give the Knicks the ball for perhaps one last good shot. Coach Tom Thibodeau called a timeout with 13.4 seconds left (and seven seconds left on the shot clock).
Evan Fournier (25 points) tried to pass inside to Mitchell Robinson, but the ball was deflected by Bruce Brown and the Nets took possession. Durant, who had nine assists, was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and hit two free throws to make it 108-105 with 6.6 seconds left.
"I had an easy pass," Fournier said. "I messed up. Bad pass."
The Nets (35-33), who are eighth in the Eastern Conference, won their third straight overall and sixth in a row against the Knicks. The Knicks (28-40) ended a 3-4 road trip with their second straight defeat. They are 12th in the conference.
Fournier called the Knicks’ chances to make the play-in tournament "slim, obviously. The odds are against us."
"I was proud of the way we fought," said Thibodeau, whose Knicks repeatedly double-teamed Durant down the stretch in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands. "It came down to, basically, one possession . . . I just want us to keep improving. I think the wins will come if we’re doing the right things and we keep getting better. We’re playing a lot of young guys, so you’re going to have some mistakes along the way. That’s all part of learning."
Durant set the all-time record for points scored by a Net against the Knicks, breaking the mark set by John Williamson (43 on Feb. 12, 1978). It was the second-highest-scoring game of Durant’s career. He had 54 for Oklahoma City against Golden State on Jan. 17, 2014.
"What can you say?" Thibodeau said. "I mean, his career speaks for itself. He gets rolling like that, you basically plan on trying to play him with your whole team and you got to try to make him work for his points."
The Nets scored the game’s first 11 points and led by as many as 12 in the first quarter. The Knicks took their first lead at 38-37 with 9:54 left in the second on a reverse layup by Obi Toppin, who returned from a hamstring injury.
The Nets, who were without Seth Curry (ankle), went into halftime up 62-60. Durant had 16 points in the first quarter and 27 in the half.
The unvaccinated Irving walked to his seat at about 2 p.m. as the teams played with less than five minutes left in the first half. He was greeted with a thunderous ovation and later embraced Nets owner Joe Tsai.
On Saturday night, Irving attended the ACC Tournament game at Barclays Center featuring Duke, his alma mater.
Kevin Durant’s stat line: