CLEVELAND — The Nets were one day from All-Star break vacation, playing the lowly 12-win Cavaliers. But after losing five of their previous six games to fall to .500, they understood they needed a win to have momentum going into a playoff push.
And so, they fought maybe as hard as they have all season, overcoming a 10-point third quarter deficit to reach the fourth quarter tied. They stayed tied at the end of the first overtime and the end of the second overtime thanks only to a buzzer-beating three-pointer by DeMarre Carroll that forced a third overtime. They were desperate, and lead dog D’Angelo Russell still was struggling through a 7-for-24 shooting night.
“When we got in that third overtime, I told [Russell], ‘You’ve been playing around too much. You’re an All-Star, man, so I’ve got to hold you at a higher caliber,’ ” Carroll said. “He took off and did his thing. He’s showed us too much this season, and we’ve got to keep him at the same level.”
Russell took Carroll’s encouragement to heart and channeled his newly minted All-Star credentials to score 11 straight points and 14 overall on 6-for-6 shooting in the third extra session to send the Nets to a 148-139 win Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. In a game that had 16 ties and 23 lead changes the Nets prevailed to reach the All-Star break at 30-29.
“This was a ‘must-win’ just for what we’re playing for,” Russell said. “This was a ‘must-win’ for us. When we come back, other teams are going to be scraping to get those wins, and for us to lose this one and lose [three] in a row would be tough.”
Russell finished with 36 points, seven rebounds and eight assists to lead eight Nets in double figures. Joe Harris had the first back-to-back 20-point games of his career with 25, Carroll added 18 points and led the Nets with a plus-15 plus/minus number.
The Cavaliers played far tougher than their 12-46 record as Russell’s former Lakers teammate Jordan Clarkson went off for a career-high 42 points off the bench and got great support from Collin Sexton with 24 and Marquese Chriss with 23. They appeared to have the game won when Clarkson hit a go-ahead jumper and added a pair of foul shots for a 128-125 lead with 3.8 seconds left.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson called for Allen Crabbe to inbound to Carroll on the right wing, and his options were a pitch-back to Harris or Crabbe. But Carroll had other ideas.
“When I was in the huddle, I was looking around,” Carroll said, “and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to take this shot. I’ve played in Cleveland so many times that I’m just going to take this shot. Coach didn’t know that. [Conditioning coach] Jordan Ott told me before I left the huddle, ‘Man, if you get it, shoot it.’”
Harris marveled at the presence of mind Carroll had in the moment. “It was DC’s feel to realize he had enough time to fake it and step back behind the line and knock it down,” Harris said. “He was wide-open. It was an unbelievable play.”
Asked if he put the ball in Russell’s hands in the third OT, Atkinson laughed and said, “No, he got the ball in his own hands. I called one play for Joe, and he kind of waved me off, and he hit the shot . . . That’s the sign of an All-Star. You can struggle the whole game and come back like that.”