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Short-handed Nets take down Magic in a nail-biter, 115-113

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

No KD, no problem... kind of.

Look, this wasn’t your regular-old walk in the park victory. Brooklyn entered the game shorthanded, missing Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, Paul Millsap, and Nicolas Claxton. To make matters worse, the Nets lost Bruce Brown in the third quarter due to hamstring tightness. An already shorthanded roster lost one of its key contributors mid-game.

After the Nets fell behind by as many as 19 points in the first half, the Nets had to “get dirty” as James Harden put it during his post-game availability with Yes Network’s Michael Grady.

“We were just able to fade off some good energy. I think it started on the defensive end. It is easy to say, but I think in that second half we were able to get stops, get deflections, and run down the other end,” said Patty Mills after the victory. “It was infectious throughout the whole group.”

Behind some superstar efforts, the Nets rallied off their 12th victory of the season, giving Brooklyn sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference at 12-5. The victory also brought the Nets’ overall record vs. below-.500 teams to 9-1.

Speaking of those superstar efforts, James Harden finished with 36 crucial points despite not-so-superstar-ish 7-of-25 shooting from the field. How’d be do it? Free throws, duh! It’s James Harden! The Beard knocked in 19 of his TWENTY free throws, including three to ice the game. Clearly adjusted to the NBA’s rule changes, The Beard is now averaging 12.6 free throws over the last five.

Steve Nash offered his thoughts on what’s fueled the Beard into finding his new-old groove, arguing that it was “both” Harden shifting his game to the new rules and the officials scaling back the severity of their... laissez-faire refereeing.

“I do think, though, that the referees are starting to figure out what’s still a foul was still a basketball foul and what’s a non-basketball play,” said Nash. ”He’s such a difficult guy to cover with his size, speed, quickness, ability to shoot over anyone from three that guys have to get too close to him. And then he’s so strong that once he gets a slight angle on you or step on you, it’s almost impossible not to follow him. You either get out of the way, or you’re going to draw contact.”

Harden, however, kept it simple. He’s just trying to make the right basketball play.

“I don’t want to talk about free throws,” said Harden after the game. “I’m just attacking the basket.”

Harden, of course, didn’t do it alone. Patty Mills tacked on 22 points of his own, including two straight threes that gave Brooklyn the lead after the massive first-half deficit. LaMarcus Aldridge was basically Brooklyn’s closer, scoring 11 of his 17 total points in the fourth quarter (more on that in a second). James Johnson was also exceptional, giving the offense some needed pace in transition to finish with a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double. The karate black belt even hit a three.

“He can do some playmaking out there,” Nash said about Johnson. “He can attack the basket with his quickness and size and he rebounded the ball for us, so huge effort from him.”

On Orlando’s side of the ball, rookie Jalen Suggs led the charge with 21 points, his best performance thus far in his short NBA career. Franz Wagner pitched in 17 points of his own, and Cole Anthony had some big-time buckets down the stretch and totaled 16 on the evening.

The first quarter kicked off to a block party, literally. Both teams recorded five blocks in the first five minutes, eventually culminating into nine total blocks at the end of the period. Orlando capitalized off all those swatted shots, as the Magic lurched out to a 17-4 advantage after the first six minutes of play. Brooklyn, meanwhile, couldn’t stop missing 3-point shots and finished 2-of-10 from deep by the end of the quarter, bringing the score to 41-25, Orlando.

Brooklyn opened the second quarter with a much more promising performance, cutting Orlando’s lead to 10 after a huge James Harden 3-pointer. The spunky Magic immediately responded with an 11-2 run of their own. It was Brooklyn’s turn to counter and after a Jevon Carter three-pointer, a Blake Griffin charge, and five James Harden free-throws, the Nets miraculously cut the lead to single digits. After being down by as many as 19 points, the Nets finished the half strong, 62-53. Advantage, Orlando.

The third quarter was Harden’s time to shine. The superstar guard poured in 15 game-changing points, dropping in step-back threes, transition layups, and even his newfound step-back mid-range jumper. Harden crossed 30 points for the second time of the season with just under three minutes to spare. The Nets wound up in the lead at the end of the period, 90-83.

But then, those pesky Magic opened the fourth with a 9-2 run. In response, LaMarcus Aldridge gave the youngsters a post clinic to the tune of seven straight points, free of charge, giving the Nets a three-point cushion. Things came to a halt when James Harden fouled Terrence Ross taking a three-pointer with 2 minutes left, cutting Brooklyn’s lead to just 2.

With 50 seconds to go, LaMarcus Aldridge dotted in a gorgeous post hook. The next possession, Cole Anthony stole James Johnson’s lunch for a layup. Aldridge then punched back with yet another back-down and skyhook to give the Nets a three-point advantage, 112-109.

To ice the game, the Nets deployed the “foul up 3” strategy, sending the Magic to the line twice in the final 11 seconds with intentional fouls to avoid any possibility of a three-point bucket. It’s a game plan that Steve Nash has deployed since taking over as head coach, and on Friday, it was successful. The Nets carried home their twelfth victory of the season, 115-113.

“I feel proud of the guys. They’ve dealt with some things so far this year and continue to work for us,” said Steve Nash about his conference-leading ballclub. “So for them to have 12 wins at this stage of the season amidst all that stuff, I think is a credit to their professionalism and effort.”

Before tonight, the Nets' best start through 17 games was 11-6 in 2012-13. That includes their ABA days as well as the NBA.

The Film Room

We’re going to ask this a lot this season.

How. HOW was this guy a buyout candidate last year? How?!?

LaMarcus Aldridge continues to be the best story in the NBA. Not only has the 36-year-old returned from medical retirement to be a productive player, but he’s been, like, really, REALLY productive. Through 15 games, Aldridge is shooting a career-high 60.7% from two-point range and a career-best 42.9% from three. Friday was more of the same.

As mentioned above, the Nets leaned on Aldridge as their go-to scorer in the fourth, backing down the opponent for buckets close to the hoop. The old school way. After all, why play the high-variance three-point game when you can just softly loft the ball over the top of your defender with pristine post-hooks?

“That’s what he’s done his whole career,” said Patty Mills about Aldridge’s big-time buckets. “So to come up huge and clutch in those moments, it was great for the team and especially great for him.”

Perhaps the biggest play of the game occurred below when Aldridge hit a tremendous turnaround shot off the backboard, pushing the Nets ahead by 1 after Aldridge canned the and-1 free throw. One thing to note in this clip: Look at how light Aldridge looks on his feet! Again, he’s 36! And yet somehow, he looks even sprier than last season.

It’s of course an unintended consequence from his early exit last season, but perhaps all that time off did him wonders.

Kevin Durant’s shoulder is nothing to worry about

Kevin Durant missed Friday’s game with a right shoulder sprain. If that gives you the heebie-jeebies, a trembling feeling in your stomach, fear not! All will be okay. Head coach Steve Nash made it clear it’s nothing to fret over.

“We don’t feel concerned that it will linger or that he misses the next game,” said Nash declaratively. Nash also noted that Durant initially had scans on his shoulder but nothing on game-day.

So what’s the reasoning for sitting Brooklyn’s best player? Rest. Nash called Friday’s game an excellent “pocket” for Durant to sit; the Nets don’t play until Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving the league’s second-leading scorer four days to recuperate.

“I just think it’s just been bugging him a little bit and finding a time for him to rest is difficult. So coming out of a back-to-back, the shoulder lingering a little and him having a four-day break here, in a sense, for the shoulder, I think just an opportunity we thought was positive for us. Unfortunately, for tonight, it hurts the team,” explained Nash, “but in the long run, it could help us. So, those are the decisions you have to make.”

Phew!

Dirk in the building

Steve Nash’s good friend, former teammate and future fellow Hall of Famer, was a surprise guest at Barclays Center.

He even mixed it up with Nets fans.

And got a nice ovation appearing on the Barclays Center jumbotron.

Nowitzki will have his jersey retired in Dallas on January 5 when the Mavs take on the Warriors.

Milestone Watch

From Justin Kabatkso, of Statitudes ...

It’s the 73rd time Harden has made at least 15 FT in a game, the most such games in NBA history by 17.

It’s the fifth time he’s shot at least 95% on 20 or more FTA, also the most such games in NBA history.

FYI, Harden is now (appropriately) No. 13 all-time in free throws with 6,680, just behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dolph Shayes with 6,712. He is second among active players, behind only LeBron James.

Rittenhouse protest

While the Nets and Magic were playing inside, the area around Barclays Center became the scene of another protest against social injustice. Several hundred protested the not guilty verdict rendered in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse earlier Friday. Rittenhouse admitted killing two men and wounding a third last August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the shooting of Jacob Blake but claimed he acted in self-defense,

There no incidents and as Norman Oder reports, there were more police than protestors.

Steve Nash commented on the protests prior to the game.

“We haven’t talked about it,” Nash said of the Nets. “Clearly, these situations are disappointing and it’s important not to be demoralized and for people to continue to fight for the type of justice and equality that serves all.

“While I think it raises a lot of eyebrows, questions, a lot of pain, we recognize there has to be a path forward. I can’t be, ‘Well, this is just the way it is.’

“So I think the movement we’ve experienced, one way or the other, is pushing change, and even if you can’t see that change on a daily basis or even year by year, without that type of attention and willpower to come together and fight for a brighter future,

“I think there would be no change. It’s paramount in the seeds of change, so I think these are always opportunities for us to look in the mirror.” added the Nets coach whose Twitter avatar is an image of George Floyd.

Clara Wu Tsai on Kyrie Irving

In a preview of an exclusive interview with Clara Wu Tsai that will air next week, YES Network’s Michael Grady asked about Kyrie Irving. Wu Tsai, co-owner of the Nets, Liberty and Barclays Center, told Grady.

“Kyrie has done great philanthropic work both locally and globally and he cares so much about humanity. He and I have had several conversations over the years about issues that we care about. namely social justice and empowering women and women of the NBA,” said Wu Tsai, herself a founding partner of the Meek Mill-inspired REFORM Alliance.

“These are things he really cares about and we’ve really connected over that. I have to say that I really miss seeing Kyrie on the court and looking forward to having him rejoin us.”

There was no mention of Irving’s vaccination status in the clip...

As Sponge Bob might say

What’s next

The Nets enjoy a nice two-day break before heading to Cleveland for a 7 PM game against the Cavaliers. Head over to Fear The Sword, our Cavaliers sister site, for additional coverage.