It was time for D’Angelo Russell to return from nine weeks of rehab Friday night at Barclays Center, but his one-point, two-assist effort in 14 minutes was just a footnote rather than the missing ingredient for the sputtering Nets.
It was the players who took over at point guard and grew in Russell’s absence — Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert — who totaled all the points in a finishing 10-4 run that gave the Nets a 101-95 victory over the Heat.
Russell was on the floor for most of a 14-0 run at the end of the third quarter that cut the Nets’ 16-point deficit to two. When he exited with 10:39 left in the fourth, the Nets trailed by four but were one point into a 10-3 surge capped by a three-pointer by LeVert that gave them a 79-77 lead with 8:57 left.
The Heat regained a three-point edge, but DeMarre Carroll scored eight straight Nets points, including a three-pointer, for an 89-86 lead with 4:19 left.
The Heat tied it again at 91, but that’s when Dinwiddie took charge with a driving dunk followed by two LeVert baskets after Heat misses for a 97-91 lead. The Nets held on and snapped their three-game losing streak.
“We haven’t had those two in at the end a ton lately,” coach Kenny Atkinson said of Dinwiddie and LeVert. “It was all on Spencer’s shoulders. The fact they could share the ballhandling duty and the pick-and-roll play at the end kept Miami off- balance.”
“Caris is a great player, constantly evolving, and is going to be a great player for a very long time,” Dinwiddie said. “He’s a guy we go to down the stretch a lot, and he hit some big shots and helped seal the victory for us.”
Carroll topped the Nets (17-29) with 26 points, including those key eight fourth-quarter points. Dinwiddie had 15 points and LeVert and Joe Harris each scored 12. Hassan Whiteside led the Heat (26-19) with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
Russell was injured Nov. 11 at Utah and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee six days later. He missed 32 games, and his return came nine weeks to the day after his surgery.
Russell entered the game with 4:28 left in the first quarter and the Nets leading by one. He missed a shot on his first possession and went scoreless in his nine first-half minutes, shooting 0-for-3 and recording no rebounds, no assists and two turnovers as the Heat built a 53-43 halftime lead.
“It felt great getting the opportunity to be with my teammates again,” Russell said. “That was the main test . . . I feel like everything is still there, but not being able to play the last few games, you’re going to feel [rusty].”
An 11-5 spurt to begin the third quarter pushed the Heat’s lead to 16 at 64-48. Russell returned with 4:18 left in the period and scored his only point when he made the second of two foul shots in the middle of the 14-0 run that brought the Nets within 69-67 at the end of the quarter.
Atkinson praised LeVert and Quincy Acy for the energy they brought in that stretch, but Le Vert said Russell played a key role, too.
“ ‘DLo’ was really vocal in the third quarter,” LeVert said. “That’s when the run started. He kind of sparked the run.”
Asked about the leadership he provided in that key stretch, Russell said, “I try to be that voice for [LeVert]. Two young guys on the team trying to find their way in this league. I think we’re going to need each other to do that.”