The Nets blew a 21-point second-quarter lead, but they never fell behind and found their resolve to pull out a 129-120 victory over the powerful Clippers on Sunday night at Disney World in Orlando to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Nets now are locked into a first-round playoff series against the defending NBA champion Raptors.
This was the second major upset for the Nets during the NBA restart, including a win over the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks, and gave them a surprising 4-2 record with two seeding games left.
Newcomer Tyler Johnson played a huge role against the Clippers, scoring 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including two foul shots and a deep three-pointer with 25.3 seconds left that gave the Nets a 127-116 lead and put the game on ice.
Asked about the looming playoff series against the second-seeded Raptors, Johnson said, “As far as going into Toronto, you know what to expect. Then again, there’s no homecourt advantage. You’re playing a basketball team in the same spot for however many games it takes to advance. For us, it’s continue to play our style of basketball. At this point, we understand that if we do that, we’re capable of beating anybody, and we showed it.”
The Clippers came back to tie the score at 74 early in the third period after Kawhi Leonard scored the first 11 points of the second half. But the Nets hung tough to take a four-point lead to the final period.
Johnson opened the fourth quarter with a pair of threes and scored the first six points in a 10-2 burst that pushed the Nets’ lead back to 108-96 with 8:47 left.
Marcus Morris later converted the Clippers’ second four-point play of the game to cut the Nets’ lead to 120-114 with 1:54 left. But Johnson’s late heroics put it out of reach.
Caris LeVert led the Nets (34-36) with 27 points and a career-high 13 assists. Joe Harris scored 25 points, Johnson had 21, Garrett Temple added 19 and Jarrett Allen had 16 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks.
The Nets shot 55.3% overall and 46.5% from three-point range (20-for-43).
Leonard topped the Clippers (47-23) with 39 points and Lou Williams had 18.
Explaining the inspired play of a Nets team with a patchwork roster that includes five new faces who replaced players who either tested positive for COVID-19, were injured or opted out, LeVert said, “I think we just believe in ourselves. We believe we can play with anybody, regardless of what anybody says. We know how close we are as a group.
“Everybody knows how to play the game, and everybody wants to win.
“If we share the ball, we have a lot of shooters. Everybody’s bought into that, and it’s starting to show.”
The Nets opened the game with a 26-10 run, hitting 10 of their first 11 field-goal attempts. They finished the first quarter on a 19-5 run to build a 45-24 lead after shooting 18-for-21 (85.7%), which was the best opening-quarter shooting for the Nets since Jan. 16, 2002, against the Wizards, when they posted the same numbers.
It looked as if the Nets were in trouble when their lead vanished in the third period, but their toughness showed. Maybe they might turn into a tough out in the playoffs.
“Especially here right now, we’re definitely a little bit underestimated,” Harris said. “We have that chip on our shoulder and we’re just out here playing for each other, competing and trying to play the right way.”
They’re doing something right.