CLEVELAND — Who would have thought a Nets team built around superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden might find themselves searching for an offensive spark in the second half Monday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse? But that’s where they were and coach Steve Nash found it when he inserted rookie Cam Thomas in the third quarter and he helped the Nets overcome a 12-point deficit.
Thomas scored eight points in a 20-6 run to close the third period and give the Nets a two-point lead, but Nash removed Thomas early in the fourth quarter and stuck with a veteran presence down the stretch to pull out a 117-112 victory.
The lead changed hands four times in the final period, the last at 2:52 when Durant made two straight baskets to trigger an 11-3 burst for a 113-108 lead that held up.
Asked how the veterans navigated a steady course through a back-and-forth final period, coach Steve Nash said, ""It manifests itself for sure, good and bad. It takes a little while to get going sometimes, but they find themselves in a hole and they’re proud and respond. That’s the most important thing and they responded tonight…shut ‘em down in the second half. We had to win this game with defense and they did it."
Durant paced the Nets (13-5) with 27 points, LaMarcus Aldridge totaled 21 and 11 rebounds after replacing Blake Griffin at center to start the second half, Patty Mills had 17 and James Harden had 14 points, six rebounds and 14 assists. But it was Thomas who provided the lift the Nets needed with eight of his 11 points in the third quarter surge.
He was coming off a 46-point effort for the Long Island Nets in the G league, and the momentum carried over. "We have to go with some different lineups and different guys," Nash said. "Cam was great. He stepped up with confidence to take shots.
"It’s difficult, the mistakes that are inevitable with these young guys. But tonight, he really hung in there. Made some big shots for us and I thought was really aware defensively. I was proud of him."
Darius Garland led the way for the Cavs (9-9) with 24 points, Lauri Markkanen added 22 points, former Net Jarrett Allen had a big night with 20 points and 15 rebounds, and the Cavs held a huge 53-42 rebounding margin.
The Nets got Durant back after missing a game and getting four straight days off to allow a right shoulder sprain to mend, but they still were missing Joe Harris (sprained left ankle) and Bruce Brown (left hamstring tightness). But the Cavaliers also got a boost from the return of Allen, who was acquired in the multi-team trade last Jan. 14 that delivered Harden to the Nets.
Allen, who signed a five-year deal worth $100 million with the Cavs in the offseason, came in averaging 14.2 points per game on phenomenal 69.4% shooting while hauling down 10.9 rebounds per game, all career-high numbers.
Allen had a strong first quarter to help the Cavs gain and maintain control early on to build a 63-52 halftime advantage. But when the Nets needed a "Cam-eo" from Thomas, he delivered.
"It just gives you more confidence that the coach actually believes in you to come in in games like this to spark a run for the team," Thomas said. "I played great defense, sparked a run like that, hit open shots when KD and Patty kicked it to me in the corner, both corner threes. I feel like everything’s a building block for me to keep it going from here on out."
Durant was impressed with the rookie.
"He gave us the boost we needed," Durant said. "Maybe he wasn’t in the scouting report…They left him open and he made plays."