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Kevin Durant and James Harden combine for 51 points as Nets beat Pacers, 105-98

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Indiana Pacers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Back to .500 and a huge stepping stone for James Harden.

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins but the Nets defeated the Pacers, 105-98. With the victory, Brooklyn improves to 3-3 on the season while Indiana drops to 1-5.

Although heading into the final 12 minutes leading by nine points, the Nets left the door open for the Pacers — a common theme throughout the contest — in the fourth. Brooklyn held a 103-94 advantage heading into the final two minutes of play and after a cutting LaMarcus Aldridge — who saved the Nets in the second half and finished with 21 points and eight rebounds off the bench — slammed home the dagger with 14.6 seconds remaining to seal the contest.

With his ninth and tenth point, Aldridge became the 24th player to score 20,000 points in an NBA career, and only the seventh active player.

“It feels good man. A true blessing. Definitely didn’t think it was going to happen after what happened last year. Stuck with it, fall back and definitely felt good to get it done tonight,” Aldridge said on his milestone. “I just feel blessed.

Aldridge of course was forced to retire last April after an instance of arrhythmia on the court in a game vs. the Lakers. After being cleared by the NBA and team medical staff, he returned to the Nets.

“He’s got scorer instincts. In any situation, he’s one of those guys that can get his in the midst of a lot of chaos. Twenty-thousand points for a career and only 48 players did that; there’s thousands of players that played this game. That’s a huge accomplishment. I know he wants more but this is a huge milestone,” said Durant on Aldridge’s scoring milestone.

While Aldridge saved the Nets with a huge performance off the bench, Brooklyn’s biggest takeaway was how James Harden looked and performed Friday night. Harden took a huge step in getting his confidence back and had the best game of the season Friday night, finishing the game with 29 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes. The “Beard” recorded a total of four turnovers in the loss. More importantly, Harden got to the line 19 times, making 16. Before Friday, he was averaging a mere three makes a game.

Kevin Durant followed with another double-double performance of 22 points and 11 rebounds on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and 1-of-3 from three in 37 minutes. Durant also dished seven assists in the victory.

The Nets finished the game shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from deep. The offense also coughed up a total of 18 turnovers (23 points for Indiana) and although the team won the rebounding battle, the Pacers' offensive rebounds added up. They accounted for a majority of the 23 second-chance points and the 52 points scored in the Nets’ paint.

“I think initially we’re pretty good,” said James Harden about the Nets’ rebounding struggles. “We got to find guys, find bodies, and gang rebound as a unit because we’re not the biggest team.”

It was another sloppy start for Brooklyn. The Nets coughed up three turnovers (three points for Indiana) and scored only 10 points in the opening four minutes of play. Harden drilled a left-wing three to provide an early spark but the Nets missed their next three attempts before the Pacers called their first timeout, leading 13-10 with 6:37 remaining in the first frame.

“I mean, you know, guys are going to turn it over. It happens,” said Steve Nash. “It’s the careless ones we want to clean up. But the ones where we’re being aggressive, that’s okay. That’s gonna happen.”

Indiana jumped ahead through their strong attacks at the rim — 14 points in the paint in the first — expanding their lead to 12 points. While the Pacers exposed the Nets weakness on the offensive boards, totaling 14 second-chance points, the Nets' offense began to catch a rhythm behind the play of Durant — 14 points in 12 minutes (the most points scored in a quarter by a Net through the first six games) but their defense couldn’t get a series of stops. Indiana ballooned their advantage to 38-26 after one. Although Brooklyn trailed after one, they were one up on highlights.

Indiana went back to their zone defense, which gave most of Brooklyn’s slow offensive sets trouble. Once the Nets started playing fast, the scoring followed. The Nets were getting to the line and forged a 10-0 run sparked by a Millsap scoring five points in two minutes, and a catch-and-shoot three from Harris in the right corner to cut the Pacers lead to six with seven and a half minutes remaining in the half.

And then the Harden the Nets have been missing showed up.

The Nets guard took a big step in getting his confidence back, scoring 13 points in the second. He gave Brooklyn their first lead of the game with three free throws at the charity strike. Harden — 21 points, four rebounds and four assists — and the Nets led 58-55 at the break. Brooklyn concluded the half shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three while Indiana shot 46.8 percent overall and 45.5 percent from deep.

Indiana Pacers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Brooklyn was nursing a 68-57 advantage and faced a scary situation. While conducting an offensive set, Griffin and Harris collided with each other, resulting in Nash calling a timeout and jog to his veteran forward. Both Griffin and Harris returned to the court after the timeout, but the Nets sharpshooter coughed up two costly turnovers and after a foul, Durant threw the ball into the stands, resulting in a technical foul.

The Nets put their foot on the gas and were rolling after the series of unique events. After a LaMarcus Aldridge hit a series of mid-range jumpers for eight points in the quarter — which included his 20,000th point — Brooklyn led 85-74 heading into the final 12 minutes.

Despite leaving the door open for Indiana late, the Pacers couldn’t slam it tight. Brooklyn prevailed, defeating Indiana by seven points.

Indiana was led by Torrey Craig with 28 points in 34 minutes off the bench followed by Damantas Sabonis with 16 points and seven rebounds. Caris LeVert did not play.

The Film Room

Finally. James Harden looked like himself. That sound you’re hearing is the collective sigh of relief from every Nets fan across the globe.

Through his first 5 games, James Harden was averaging just 16.6 points — his lowest scoring average since his third season in the league. He shot 35.9% from the field, the worst shooting performance of his career. Harden was drawing fouls on just 19.2% of his possessions, by far his worst free throw rate ever (the not-very-close second place occurred during his rookie season at 41.5%).

I pondered a solution to the Harden quandary on Twitter. Specifically, was Harden embellishing calls too much? And was throwing his head back to signify contact as he had in previous seasons actually working against him? Was all that flailing a red flag to the officials, a sign to not call a foul due to the rule changes?

That answer is still TBD, but what is clear is that Harden’s approach changed. He drove with a new purpose, to score, and not to draw contact. With more organic intent came foul calls. 17 of them, in fact. More than half of Harden’s 28 total points came from the free-throw line. Just like the James of old.

“I keep saying it every single game there’s gonna be, you know, I feel good, feel better,” said Harden after his big performance. “Continue to work off days, well, non-game day, continue to work on game days, just continue to be aggressive, get to the basket, get to the basket, and shoot my shots and nothing’s gonna change. Eventually, things are gonna happen where it is consistent and I’m up there and playing like myself.”

As a 220-pound guard, opponents just bounce off him when Harden puts his head down to get to the rim. From there, those helpless defenders hang onto dear life onto Harden’s limbs. AKA, foul him. It’s that simple.

By pressuring the rim, the defense was left on its toes. Defenders couldn’t just sit on Harden’s stepback. His powers were back. Harden’s game is built off keeping the defense in a constant state of anxiety, unsure if his flurries of crossovers will produce a drive to the rim or a hop-stepping three-ball. Torrey Craig is a half-second late on his contest for that exact reason.

It’s probably too early to say James Harden is fully back, but things are trending in the right direction.

Nash expects Nic Claxton back at tail-end of homestand

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Nic Claxton missed his third straight game Friday against the Pacers due to a non-COVID-related illness. The illness was not further described. Claxton, who has missed a large number of games since entering the league, is not expected to be out much longer with a chance he’ll return Sunday against Detroit, said Nash. The Nets head coach sounded confident Claxton will be back for Wednesday’s game against Atlanta if he missed Sunday’s game.

“I’d expect him hopefully to be ready to play by Sunday or for sure Wednesday. I don’t think any of us are fearful that it's a long-term thing,” said Nash on Claxton.

Ball toss controversy

Midway through the third quarter, frustration got the better part of Kevin Durant. After drawing a foul, he suddenly threw the ball into the stands. That normally warrants an immediate ejection...

Rick Carlisle, the veteran NBA coach who now is the head guy in Indiana, approached the refs demanding an explanation and calling for KD to be tossed much like the ball. The refs declined, but after the game, reacting to a question by Greg Logan of Newsday, they admitted they made a mistake, per a report from the league’s officiating site...

Also, post-game, Carlisle reiterated his complaint...

For his part, Durant said the toss was inadvertent.

“I tried to hit the backboard. But I shouldn’t have did it,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought I was at the gym by myself in a pickup game, not an NBA game. I can’t do that. I could have cost my team a game. But it won’t happen again.”

Durant is likely to get a big fine out of the incident.

What’s next

The Nets will return to action on Sunday, Oct. 31 when the team hosts the Detroit Pistons on Halloween. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.

For a different perspective on Friday's contest, check out Indy Cornrows — our sister site covering the Pacers.