One game after a horrendous defensive performance in an embarrassing loss to the NBA-worst Wizards, the Nets saw a 10-point lead shrink to one in with 24.1 seconds left as another late-game collapse loomed.
But they gained a measure of much-needed redemption with a 124-120 victory over the NBA-best Clippers Tuesday night at Barclays Center.
The Clippers closed to within 120-119 on a pair of Kawhi Leonard foul shots with 7.1 seconds left, but the Nets finally clinched the decision on two foul shots by Kyrie Irving with 1.9 to go.
The Nets opened the fourth quarter with a 7-3 burst to gain a 95-93 lead on a corner three by Joe Harris with 8:44 left to play. The Clippers responded with seven straight points to take a 102-97 advantage on a three-point play by Paul George with 6:58 left.
But the next 13 points belonged to the Nets, including eight by Irving for a 110-102 lead at the 4:02 mark after a James Harden three, and they eventually pushed it to 118-108 on a three by Kevin Durant with 1:55 to go before the Clippers nearly stole it with their late theatrics.
Coming on the heels of the 149 points they gave up in Washington, the Nets put together one of their better defensive efforts of the season against a powerful team.
"I think it was the application," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "they took a lot of pride and responded. They knew the team with the league’s best record was in front of them.
"I said to the guys we got a great win tonight, but the most important thing is we got better . . . We may not profile as a great defensive team, but we can be solid."
Irving totaled 39 points to lead the Nets (14-9), Durant had 28 plus nine rebounds, and Harden recorded a triple-double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Nets shot 57% from the field. Leonard led the Clippers (16-6) with 33 points, George had 26, Nicolas Batum added 20, and the Clips shot 41.7% from three.
One key figure that wasn’t in the Clippers’ lineup but was on their bench was Kenny Atkinson, who was fired last March as the Nets’ head coach and undoubtedly was hoping for a bit of payback that nearly materialized.
The Clippers picked up where the Wizards left off, jumping out to a quick 18-6 lead. That double-digit margin was a bad omen because the Clippers came in with a 15-1 record in games where they built a double-digit lead. But the Nets finished the first half on a 12-2 run to close their halftime deficit to 58-57 after the players got together in a timeout to iron out some defensive problems.
"They’re the best three-point shooting team in the league," Durant said of the Clippers. "But we stayed the course, controlled the [isolation plays] and got out to the three-point line . . . We need to be a great defensive team. Tonight, we showed what we can do, but we’ve got to be better."
When Irving hit a baseline jumper to open the second half, it gave the Nets their first lead, and it was tight the rest of the way until the Nets fashioned a 21-6 run with the Big 3 combining for all the points for their 10-point lead at the 1:55 mark.
"Tonight, it was about going out and showing it," Irving said. "We talked about playing at the same level every night. We just have to take pride and understand every team is going to give us their best shot. It seems like so many magical things happen against us. But we have to get used to it and just learn to finish these games."