For three quarters, it appeared the upstart young Hawks had the favored Nets on their heels Wednesday night at Barclays Center. The Nets had no clue on defense, point guard Kyrie Irving was mired in a 3-for-16 shooting slump to that point, and only 16-of-17 shooting by reserves Landry Shamet, Taurean Prince, Jeff Green and Jarrett Allen kept it a two-point deficit starting the final quarter.
But when the Nets had to have it, superstars Irving and Kevin Durant combined for 33 points in the final period to carry them to a 145-141 shootout victory over the Hawks. Irving returned to the game with 8:47 to play and scored 17 of his 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the final period, including 3-of-4 from three-point range.
Describing his fourth-quarter turnaround following practice on Thursday, Irving said, "Every shot I felt like was a great shot. Some were a little tougher than normal, but … it’s not like I haven’t seen anything in my career about how to bounce back after halftime and just galvanize all the guys and myself and we just kind of willed that win yesterday.
"It was a collective effort for all of us to carry the load offensively. We were making a lot of mistakes defensively against a good, young Hawks team. They took advantage of a lot of those miscommunications. For me personally, I wasn’t really worried. It’s the regular season. It’s good sparring matches."
The Nets face a rematch with the Hawks and young stars Trae Young and John Collins, each of whom scored 30 points in the first game, Friday night at Barclays Center. Naturally, coach Steve Nash spent his practice time walking the Nets through their defensive adjustments, but despite those struggles, the Nets put all their firepower on display with a season-high seven players scoring in double figures while shooting 54% from the field (54 of 100) and 46.3% (19 of 41) from three.
Irving called the loss of starting guard Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury that will require surgery next week as a "huge, huge blow," but he praised the Nets’ obvious depth of offensive talent. "Dangerous, really dangerous that we can have that many pieces," Irving said. "After the game, I was just realizing that a lot of the ballhandling duties, a lot of things that I was relying on to have Spence out there in the lineup we don’t necessarily have for a while…We’re going to miss in Spence.
"Now, we have to get another group of guys together in terms of finding that synergy to be able to carry on throughout the rest of the games. So, I’m looking forward to that growth."
Part of the growth involves Irving and Caris LeVert, who is the sixth man running the second unit at point guard, learning how to play together at closing time. Nash keeps them apart the majority of the game because the offensive skills of Irving, LeVert and Durant are "redundant," but he emphasized, "They can close games for sure. I think it’s better usage to spread them out, but at the end of the game, all bets are off. Who’s going well, who’s confident and what lineups are working well together are all to be considered."
As unhappy as he was with the defense, Nash conceded the Nets (3-2) had passed a "gut check" by avoiding a three-game losing streak to hand the Hawks (3-1) their first loss. "You’re disappointed in the defense, but you’re really pleased with the resolve we showed because it was a game where (the Hawks) were just throwing everything in and looked unguardable for stretches. For us not to give in…we showed some resolve, and it’s got to give us some confidence and toughness going forward."