James Harden returned and restored the Nets’ offense by scoring 44 points, his high since joining them on Jan. 14, and they survived a physical battle with the Pistons to pull out a 113-111 win on Friday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Pistons tied the score at 82, but former Piston Blake Griffin hit a three-pointer to trigger a 13-2 run that gave the Nets a 98-87 lead with 8:30 left.
The Pistons responded with a 14-4 run that included nine points by Frank Jackson, ending with back-to-back threes that cut the Nets’ lead to 102-101 with 4:51 remaining.
The Pistons tied the score at 106 on a layup by Siddiq Bey with 2:14 to play, but a three-point play by Harden, a three-pointer by Jeff Green and a free throw by Joe Harris gave the Nets a 113-110 lead with 5.3 seconds to play. Ahead 113-111, they turned the ball over two seconds later and the Pistons’ Cory Joseph tried driving for a game-tying layup, but it not only missed but came after the buzzer.
"This wasn’t a great performance," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "We won the game. We went 2-1 on the trip, which is all positive but sloppy. I just felt like Detroit wanted it more than we did too often."
Griffin totaled 17 points, his high since joining the Nets (31-15). He shot 5-for-8 from the field and 2-for-2 from three-point range in 20:11.
Harden added 14 rebounds and eight assists.
"I feel good," he said. "I had a couple days to get my neck right and I had a banged-up knee as well. They’re a scrappy team. They played like they had nothing to lose. They were aggressive. They made big-time shots. For us, I’m just happy to come away with a win. I think going into this road trip, we knew it was going to be difficult, but to come away with two out of three is [a good] road trip, especially with our circumstances and what we’ve got going on as far as injuries."
Jerami Grant topped the Pistons (12-32) with 19 points but shot 5-for-14. Jackson added 14 points, all in the fourth quarter.
Early in the second period, Griffin appeared to hit former teammate Isaiah Stewart in the face with an inadvertent elbow in a scramble for a rebound, and Stewart retaliated with an intentional elbow to Griffin’s head.
After a delay lasting more than five minutes, the officials hit Griffin with a technical foul and ejected Stewart for a flagrant 2 technical foul.
"They’re a hard-playing team," Griffin said of the Pistons. "I don’t know if you expect to get elbowed, but I knew it was going to be chippy. They were going to play hard, but that stuff doesn’t bother me . . . So it was good to see them, but better to get in, get a win and get out."
The Nets were coming off a 30-point blowout loss in Utah, where Harden (neck soreness) had to miss only his second game since joining the team. Griffin also was rested in that game, so the Nets were far short of their usual offensive firepower without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Landry Shamet. The latter three players remained out against the Pistons.
Griffin negotiated a buyout with the Pistons and then signed with the Nets over the All-Star break. Asked before the game if he sensed the game might be special to him, Nash said: "Not really. I think he’s excited to play, but I don’t know the depths of his joy in this rematch."
The Pistons made life tough on the Nets in two previous meetings. The Nets put on an embarrassing defensive display in Detroit before winning 14 of their next 15 games.
"Coach [Dwane] Casey really has them playing with a lot of spirit and energy," Nash said. "We’ve got to play with as much intent and purpose as we can."