Talen Horton-Tucker #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers defends James...

Talen Horton-Tucker #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers defends James Harden #13 of the Nets as he drives to the basket in the first half of the game at Crypto.com Arena on December 25, 2021 in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images/Jayne Kamin-Oncea

Last week, the Nets had an NBA-high 13 players in COVID-19 protocols, but after three postponements and a week off and the timely return of James Harden, it appeared the Nets might get well in a hurry as they built a 23-point fourth-quarter lead over the Lakers.

Instead, the Nets lost that entire lead as Los Angeles tied it with 45 seconds to go before the Nets scored the final seven points to pull out a 122-115 Christmas Day victory Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. The Nets improved their NBA-best road record to 12-3.

"Just a great performance from everybody," Nets coach Steve Nash said after the narrow escape. "It’s not easy to play after a week off. James carried us for long stretches, and I think the team in general all came together defensively and made enough plays at both ends when things were becoming a little bit doubtful at times. They were resilient."

The Nets previously lost all of a 17-point second-quarter lead as the Lakers briefly went in front early in the third quarter. But the Nets finished the third period on an extended 25-8 run that included a pair of three-pointers by Patty Mills to build a 102-82 lead.

Early in the fourth, the Nets’ lead reached a high of 23 points on a Mills three-pointer with 10:39 left to play. But they suddenly went into the deep freeze as the Lakers went on a 17-0 run to cut their deficit to 107-101 before Mills finally drained a three to end the Nets’ scoreless drought at 5:18.

That actually was the beginning of an extended 31-8 Lakers run to tie the score at 115 on Malik Monk’s layup with 45 seconds left. At that point, Harden threaded a pass to Nic Claxton, who dunked, was fouled and made the free throw for a three-point lead. Lakers stars Russell Westbrook and LeBron James each missed shots at the other end, and Harden hit four foul shots in the final seconds.

Harden’s pass to Claxton for the dunk to regain control was the big play at the end. "I threw that same pass probably four or five possessions earlier and LeBron deflected it," Harden said. "So I had to put it a little higher and Nic went to go get it . . . and he made his free throw. At that point you’ve just got to get one stop and we did that."

Harden put on quite a show, leading the Nets (22-9) with 36 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Mills poured in 34, including 8-for-13 on three-point shooting. Bruce Brown added 16 points and DeAndre’ Bembry had 15. James topped the Lakers (16-18) with 39 points, Monk totaled 20 and Westbrook had 13 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

The Nets welcomed back Harden, who missed the previous four games they played, one because of a planned rest and then three more after he entered health and safety protocols. They were desperate for the offensive lift Harden could provide to a team still missing Kevin Durant in health and safety protocols.

He sparked them to a 38-23 first quarter lead that shrank to 66-62 at halftime. When Harden led the Nets to a 20-point third-quarter lead it seemed they might coast. That didn’t happen, but they hung on for the big Christmas Day win.

"It’s up there," Harden said when asked where this one rated. "I remember there were a couple games at home where guys were out and we found ways to win. Until we get our full roster, we have to find ways to win and we’ve been doing it. We’ve got another one Monday against a solid Clippers team. We have to go in with the same mindset."

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