For three quarters, the Nets embarrassed themselves on defense, giving up 104 points. But in the fourth quarter, they outscored the Nuggets 28-15. Understand, they allowed only 15 fourth-quarter points. That was enough to secure a 125-119 victory that snapped their season-worst four-game losing streak Saturday night at Ball Arena in Denver.
The victory lifted the Nets (44-24) back into second place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks (43-24). The Nets overcame a 21-point second-quarter deficit, their most inspiring comeback since they overcame a 23-point deficit in Phoenix.
The Nets trailed 71-50 late in the second quarter before going on a 24-6 run that lasted into the third period and included 10 points from Blake Griffin to pull within 77-74.
Also, the 104 points they gave up through three periods tied their worst of the season when they gave up 104 to Atlanta on Jan. 30, 2020.
"We maybe would have had a better start," coach Steve Nash said. "We found that toughness and resolve in the second half and got it done, and we’ll just move on."
Describing the Nets’ response to a bad defensive performance for three quarters, Nash said, "It was a response to the first half."
Yet they fell 12 points behind near the end of the third quarter before launching an extended finishing run of 24-8 that included seven straight points by Jeff Green to build a 116-112 lead. They held on from there for the victory as Kevin Durant scored the final five points of the game.
Durant led the Nets with 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Kyrie Irving added 31 points, Griffin totaled 20 and the Nets shot 62.1%, including 51.6% from three-point range (16-for-31).
The Nuggets (44-24) got 29 points from Nikola Jokic, who added seven rebounds and six assists. Michael Porter Jr. had 28 points and 5-10 Argentinian guard Facundo Campazzo added 19.
Coming into the game, there was no question that the primary obstacle facing the Nets was the 7-foot figure of Nuggets center Jokic, who was averaging 26.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.4 steals and shooting 41.1% from three-point range and 56.8% overall. Jokic also was playing his 68th game out of 68, which is a major consideration in his MVP candidacy.
"Clearly, I think Jokic is the MVP this year," Nash said before the game. "They lose Jamal Murray [knee surgery] and they haven’t really skipped a beat. That shows how good [Jokic] is. They’re a big team. They’re going to throw a huge lineup out there to start the game. They’ll pose all sorts of problems, and it begins and ends with Jokic."
As it turned out, the Nets totally embarrassed themselves in terms of first-half defense. Porter scored the first 11 Nuggets points, they led by 10 in the first quarter and Porter eventually totaled 17 points in the period, including 5-for-6 shooting from three-point range to tie his career high for any period.
The Nuggets went on an extended 22-10 run from late in the opening period into the second quarter to build a 52-33 lead. Campazzo had 14 points during that stretch, further embarrassing the Nets. Ultimately, the Nuggets’ lead reached 21 points.
The Nets had a 14-0 run in which they scored the first eight points of the third quarter to cut their deficit to 71-64 and got as close as three points. Ultimately, the Nets scored 41 points in the third quarter, but they gave up 33 to trail 104-97 going to the final period, when they finally played defense.
"If we consistently do that, we are in great shape," Durant said of the fourth-quarter defense. "We won this game, and they shot 26 more shots than us. If we make that possession battle even, we are in great shape. That second half was who we are. Hopefully we build on it."