Nets guard James Harden (13) gets past Dallas Mavericks center...

Nets guard James Harden (13) gets past Dallas Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis, right, for a shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

DALLAS — For three quarters, the Nets and especially stars Kevin Durant and James Harden struggled to put the ball in the basket against the Mavericks Tuesday night at American Airlines Center while trailing by as much as 17 points in the third period. But when crunch time arrived, so did Durant and Harden as they put together a 16-4 run to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter.

In the end, it was Mavs star Luka Doncic who couldn’t get his shots to fall as the Nets pulled out a 102-99 victory to avoid what would have been their first back-to-back losses of the season and hang on to first place in the Eastern Conference.

Patty Mills hit a three-pointer to put the Nets on top for good with 2:48 left. Durant and Harden totaled 17 of the Nets’ 27 points in the final period, and they held the Mavs to 13 points on 4-for-21 shooting. Doncic and Tim Hardaway Jr. each missed potential tying threes on the final possession.

Asked to describe the key to their fourth-quarter comeback, Nets coach Steve Nash said, "The character. We asked them at halftime not to get discouraged. There were a lot of times where we could have folded or we could have thought it’s not our night.

"Things weren’t necessarily going our way and they didn’t. They stuck with it. Although we won the third [period] by one, it didn’t feel great. It still felt like the mountain was high and they just kept attacking. Stuck with it and I thought it was the character that made the difference."

The Mavs did a good job of throwing a lot of bodies at Durant, who topped the Nets (17-7) with 24 points, and Harden, who added 23 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 15, and James Johnson added 12.

Doncic led the Mavs (11-12) with 28 points and nine assists, Kristaps Porzingis totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds and Dorian Finney-Smith had 15 points.

Without Kyrie Irving, who has not complied with the New York City vaccine mandate and has been placed on leave by the organization because they won’t permit him to be a part-time player available only for road games, the Nets necessarily have shifted their emphasis from offense to defense and the lack of firepower was evident as the Mavericks held Durant and Harden to a combined 30 points through three periods.

Porzingis scored seven points in a 9-4 surge that pushed the Mavs’ lead to 17 points early in the third quarter, but the Nets trimmed it to 86-75 entering the final period. In the last quarter, Durant said the Nets changed to a switching defense and backup center Nic Claxton did a good job of helping against Doncic.

"That’s really what they do — a lot of pick-and-rolls to Luka, a lot of double screens for Luka," Durant said. "He’s such a great passer and great scorer that he can get into the lane and start manipulating the game a bit with kickouts, and now you’re scrambling. So I think we did a good job of keeping him in front and making him play one-on-one over us and we were able to hold them to 40.0% shooting and 37 points in the second half. That’s a great team effort."

When Harden was asked if he and Durant changed anything in the fourth quarter to get the offense kick-started, he shook his head no. "Nah, we’ve been in this league long enough to know it’s winning time," Harden said. "Its go time. But throughout the course of the game, I feel like we got good shots and just missed them. We just kept sticking with it, and sticking with it and being aggressive."

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