Right up until pregame warmups, James Harden was nearly a DNP. Once the game tipped off, he looked like an MVP.
With his Nets shorthanded, Harden refused to let them come up short. He shook off a neck injury that had him questionable, leading the Nets to a come-from-behind 116-112 victory over Portland at Moda Center.
The Big Three pared down to a Big One, Harden had 25 points, a season high-tying 17 assists and seven rebounds despite playing through pain and had him close to being held out.
“Very close, actually. I wasn’t able to really be myself, really show just my full range of motion, a little bit everything,” said Harden. “But no excuses. I tried to fight and my team needed me. I tried to go out there and just do my best. And hopefully that was good enough.”
Clearly. With Kyrie Irving out, Jeff Green, Joe Harris and Nic Claxton all picked up the slack as the Nets pulled out a come-from-behind win.
After giving up 41 points in the first quarter, the defense settled in as the game went on. They held Portland to just 21 in the fourth on .318 shooting.
“A lot better in the final three quarters,” Steve Nash said. “We struggled defensively in the first quarter. Thought we were a little indecisive. Made too many errors, mental errors. But the last three quarters, 25, 25, 21 points was very good. We kept telling them during the game, our defense is getting better. Stick with it, keep getting better, and they did. They did a great job. They battled, they fought, our rebounding got better and we got the stops.”
The Nets (30-14) won for the 16th time in their last 18 games, and ran their team-record winning streak against Western Conference foes to nine straight. They moved to a half-game behind Philadelphia for first place in the Eastern Conference.
And they did it without Irving (family matter), Kevin Durant (hamstring), Landry Shamet (ankle) and Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL). That’s how good Harden was.
“I love to hoop. I love to be out there taking on the challenge of finding a way to win games. In basketball, nothing is going to be perfect,” said Harden, adding he will play vs. Utah if he’s capable. “I just go out there and try to make an impact if I can play without risking [real injury].”
The Nets used a 16-5 run to take a seven-point fourth quarter lead. It was three with the ball and 16.5 seconds left when Harden was charged with a turnover, Derrick Jones Jr. winning a jump ball against Claxton (16 points, nine boards). Brooklyn gave a foul and Robert Covington made just one of two free throws to make it 114-112.
Green (20 points) iced it at the stripe.
The Nets held Damian Lillard (22 points) and CJ McCollum to 7-of-26 from deep, including 0-for-7 in the pivotal final period. Now they have NBA-leading Utah looming Wednesday on the tail end of a brutal back-to-back, and Detroit on Friday.
“We’ve played extremely well on the road, especially against Western Conference teams,” said Harris, who had 17 points. “But it think just over the course of today’s game we showed a level of resilience that good teams show.”
The Nets led 69-68 after a Bruce Brown layup. But they coughed up a 9-1 run, capped by a Jones Jr. 3 that made it 77-70 with 8:32 left in the third quarter.
The Nets still trailed 88-84 following a putback by noted Nets-killer Enes Kanter. They responded by reeling off a 16-5 run, including the first six unanswered points.
A Blake Griffin bucket put them up 96-93. And Claxton had a tip-in and transition layup to give the Nets their biggest edge of the night at 100-93 with 10:03 to play.
When the Nets saw the lead shrivel to two e on Covington’s running 3-pointer, Harden found Tyler Johnson for a 3 of his own to answer. Claxton padded it back to 110-103 with 5:24 left. It could have been a lob by Harden, or a missed floater; either way, it was a seven-point edge.