It was closing time Sunday night at Barclays Center, and the Nets stepped up at last call and put away a tough Philadelphia 76ers team, 122-97, with a determined defensive performance. The win gave the Nets two bounce-back wins in their three-game homestand and reversed a recent trend in which they had coughed up late leads.
After a 41-point third-quarter explosion, the Nets saw their 19-point lead shrink to 14 early in the fourth quarter, which undoubtedly jangled some nerves. But consecutive three-pointers by Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe triggered a 14-4 run that pushed their lead to 108-84 with 5:50 left.
After shooting 17.9 percent in the first quarter, when 76ers center Joel Embiid was changing shots right and left, the Nets shot 58.4 percent (45-for-77) in the final three quarters.
“We made shots,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “That helps a ton. I think we scored 41 points in the third quarter and kept our defense sharp. We talked before the game about closing a really good team out. That’s the tough part. We handled that.”
D’Angelo Russell led six Nets in double figures with 21 points and added six assists. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also had 21 points, Caris LeVert added 20 points, five assists and four steals, and Jarrett Allen had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Ben Simmons topped the 76ers (6-5) with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Embiid totaled 16 points and 15 rebounds but was held to three second-half points. The 76ers contributed heavily to their own demise with 28 turnovers that led to 39 Nets points.
The 76ers arrived on the second night of a back-to-back set, but tired or not, Embiid was a powerful force. He came in averaging 29.4 points and 12.4 rebounds, but Allen pushed the pace and his teammates kept attacking the rim to wear down Embiid.
The Nets put together an 18-10 run at the end of the second quarter, hitting eight of nine shots in that stretch and getting nine points from LeVert to take a 51-47 halftime lead.
The score was tied at 61 midway through the third quarter when Harris hit a pair of threes and Russell added a floater and a three in an 11-0 burst for a sudden 72-61 advantage. That was just the beginning of an extended 31-12 run in which the Nets made 10 of their first 11 shots and pushed their lead to a high of 19 points just before the third quarter ended.
“We kept going to the basket,” Allen said of the strategy against Embiid. “After a while, you can’t contest everything. Speed is my advantage. That’s what I wanted to use to tire him out.”
Atkinson said LeVert was key for a defense that was much improved after struggling in Friday’s loss to the Rockets. “He set the tone defensively with his activity,” Atkinson said. “Caris was all over the place. I kind of talked to him before the game. The challenge for him is to be really good on both ends. We just don’t want him to be a one-way player. He’s got a lot of talent, and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. He was really good on both ends.”
It’s still early in the season, but LeVert said the Nets are learning the importance of defense in closing out games and how much they can improve. “We can control games by our defense even if our shots aren’t falling,” he said. “That’s something we didn’t have last year. Last year, when we weren’t hitting shots, we were in trouble. I think this year we can really control the game on defense. We’ve improved a lot there.”