Great players aren’t always great. But they are when they need to be.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were just that Wednesday night. With the Nets’ heretofore-stout defense looking like a sieve, they shook off slow starts with stellar finishes, leading Brooklyn to a 145-141 come-from-behind win over the previously unbeaten Hawks.
Durant scored 16 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, when the Nets outscored Atlanta 44-37. And Irving poured in 17 of his 25 points in the final period, as the Nets turned a three-point deficit into a gut-check victory.
“The guys hung in, that’s the number one thing. We’re not always going to win the way we want, holding teams down. … But we finally got enough stops and better offense to get it done,” coach Steve Nash said. “I definitely need a beer.”
One could hardly blame the Nets (3-2) for a celebratory drink or three after this one. They earned it.
They shot 54 percent and 46.3 percent from 3-point range on a night when they couldn’t slow the Hawks, much less stop them. They trailed by one at the break and by three going into the fourth quarter, when Durant and Irving seized the game.
“Their names speak for themselves. When it gets down to crunch time, we know where the ball needs to go. The ball needs to be in their hands, and they proved why that needs to happen,” said Jarrett Allen, who had 15 points and 13 boards. “We put our trust in them.”
That trust was warranted.
Joe Harris had 23 points on 6 of 8 from deep, while Taurean Prince (14 points) and Landry Shamet (12 points) combined to break out of their funks by going a combined 10-for-10 from the floor. The Nets showed impressive balance with seven players in double figures — and the stars took over in crunch time.
“Yeah, most definitely. That’s what a team is all about, you know?” said Durant. “When you’re not making shots early on, you need your guys to come on and pick you up. Defenses are going to be focused on Ky and myself, so having guys like Taurean and Landry who can knock down shots for us [is huge].
“We missed a lot early on. Ky was 1-for-10 to start. I was [6-for-15] in the first half. … But the good thing is even though we didn’t shoot the ball well — us two — we were still only down one point. Joe kept us going. … TP hit some big shots, Jeff [Green] and Landry picked us up. And that’s what we’re going to need all season.”
Atlanta’s Trae Young (30 points, 11 assists) and John Collins (30 points, 10 rebounds) got whatever they wanted. The Nets trailed 47-40 after De’Andre Hunter’s 3, and never could stop the Hawks (3-1).
The Nets were down 68-67 after a first half in which Irving mustered just four points and missed nine of 10 shots, and all five from deep. The Nets yielded eight straight points — the last by Young — to fall behind 82-76.
In the third the Nets pulled even again at 94-all, but then allowed a 9-1 run, with a Solomon Hill 3-pointer making it 103-95.
It was tied at 120-all before Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot kicked out to Harris for a corner 3 that put the Nets up for good.
Irving hit a 3-pointer to make it 130-126 with 4:32 remaining, and another to pad it to 137-132 with 2:01 left. The Nets held on for dear life.
“Ky definitely brought us home,” Nash said. “We definitely got tested. We came into the game No. 1 defensively, and that went out the window.
“It was a gut check. Things just weren’t going our way. They were playing great. They were putting us in positions where we were uncomfortable and causing confusion. Our defense let down too many times, but we didn’t fold.
“We continued to find ways to get stops, to get steals, to get baskets, to get to the foul line. If you want to be a good team at the end of the road, it’s non-negotiable: You have to have a ton of resolve, and this team showed that we have resolve.”