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Kyrie Irving scores 31 as Nets take over first place, 120-108, but James Harden hurt

NBA: Houston Rockets at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Wins are better than losses but Wednesday night’s win was yet another hard-fought escape for the Nets. After one of the season’s worst starts, they battled back in the second half against one of the NBA’s worst teams. And they did it without James Harden in crunch time. He went down with hamstring tightness with four minutes left in the third. He’ll be evaluated Thursday but Steve Nash downplayed its seriousness post-game.

“We’re going to monitor it and see how he feels in the morning,” Steve Nash said on Harden. “I don’t have a lot to tell you but we feel optimistic it's not a long-term thing and we’ll just monitor it.”

When asked whether imaging or a scan is set for Harden, Nash said it will depend on how he’s feeling in the morning. The Nets head coach spoke about how Harden, after seeing the trainer, Sebastian Poirier, was pulled from the game for precaution.

“I think he told the trainer when he was on the sideline. They went back to look at it and it was decided it wasn’t worth risking it. We’ll just see how he feels in the morning and go from there.”

With Harden out, Kyrie Irving had his fingerprints all over the game. He finished with 31 points, 12 assists and four rebounds to help Brooklyn win, defeating the Rockets, 120-108.

Slipping by one of the NBA’s worst teams, the Nets officially went to the top of the East for the first time since the 2003 season and end the month of March with an 11-2 record, tying the best month in franchise history.

“First and foremost, really proud of our guys. They’ve had a lot thrown at them this year. We’ve had a lot of different lineups, a tough schedule and a new group. I mean, we got three new groups in a sense,” Nash said reflecting on the season. “To stick together, continue to pursue what we’re asking them to pursue - big picture and in the short term with details - that’s impressive.”

For the second time in three games, the win wasn’t pretty but the Nets have now won 19 of their last 22 games and swept the season series against Houston for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

James Harden, who played only 27 minutes and no fourth quarter action, contributed 17 points to go with eight rebounds and six assists in 27 minutes. Harden struggled with his 3-point shot again, going 0-of-3 but ended the night shooting 5-of-10 from the field.

Brooklyn, who trailed by 18, saved its best play for the fourth as the Nets forged a 19-2 run entering the final minute. Joe Harris, who finished with 28 points on 7-of-12 shooting from deep, hit consecutive 3-point daggers in the final minute to seal the resilient win to boost the Nets to 33-15 on the season.

“The first half was the doldrums, especially the first quarter. The second half was outstanding. The effort and improved physicality. We’re really proud of our guys for what they accomplished for everything that's been thrown at them.”

Blake Griffin gave the Nets good minutes off the bench finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and four assists, including a Lob City-like put-back slam, in 22 minutes. For those who thought Griffin could no longer dunk, we pause to make sure you saw this...

“Blake is obviously an extremely talented player. He’s also very smart as well,” said Joe Harris about Griffin. “He makes a lot of the right plays. He’s definitely the perfect type of big that you want for today’s game where you’re able to get him the ball, play through him, you can space the floor, knock down shots. He adds an element that we’re really lucky to have in a big man, in a 4 or 5 man at times.”

Then, there was the kid. Nicolas Claxton once again finished the game and had himself a solid night off the bench, tallying 12 points, eight rebounds, one assist and a big block in 21 minutes. He and Griffin finished with +23 and +19 in plus/minus, respectively, to lead the team.

For the Rockets, they came to play as Kevin Porter Jr led the team with 20 points in 31 minutes followed by Danuel House Jr with 18 points in 30 minutes as Houston falls to 13-34 on the year.

It was all Rockets in the first. The Nets came out flat and paid for it. Brooklyn struggled early on as Houston came out of the gates on an 18-6 run, leading Nash to call the first timeout with 8:09 remaining. The Nets showed no signs of stopping the Rockets defensively while Houston’s zone shaded to the ball, giving Brooklyn all mannier of problems to find a rhythm.

Irving and Harden kept the Nets afloat in the period, scoring 26 of Brooklyn’s 29 first-quarter points but defense was optional as Houston ended the first shooting an electric 78.9 percent from the field and 77.8 from deep to go up 42-29 after one.

After trailing 13 entering the second, the Rockets - backed up by their high pace - controlled the tempo in the opening minutes but Brooklyn began to gather their footing midway through the period. The Nets started to cut down the deficit in the final minutes of the second behind the play of their superstar backcourt. Although Brooklyn’s defense couldn’t put together a series of must-needed stops, the Nets remained in striking distance as Houston headed to the locker room up 68-57.

The Nets hit the break shooting 47.7 percent from the field but struggled to find a groove from deep (22.2 percent) as Irving led Brooklyn in scoring with 18 points followed by Harden with 17 points to go with five rebounds and five assists.

A spark was needed coming out of the locker room. While Brooklyn forged a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to single digits, the Nets started to rack up stops simmering the Rockets offense early as Steve Silas called timeout with 7:13 remaining in the third.

Led by Irving, the Nets put together a strong 12-0 run to cut the deficit to one, which included a put-back slam from Griffin, with 3:02 remaining. Brooklyn took the lead in the final seconds for the first time but after a Kelly Olynyk floater, the Rockets headed to the fourth with an 87-86 lead.

The Nets started the final 12 with a crushing blow as the team ruled out Harden for the remainder of the game with right hamstring tightness. Despite a slight offensive attack from the Nets early on, the Rockets extended their lead to six with 6:52 remaining as another hard-fought win was in Brooklyn’s reach.

All of a sudden, the Nets grew a five-point lead beginning with Claxton, who scored 12 points to go with a key block in the fourth. Harris then hit a three for the lead. To make matters sweeter, Griffin responded with a three himself to electrify the Nets and lift the Nets to close out the game with a win.

“It felt good. We had a real, real, real, real slow start but come back and have that grit and get the win was big,” Claxton said. “The comeback was a lot of fun.”

The Film Room

The Nets were dead in the water. DeAndre Jordan’s performance in Brooklyn’s aggressive switching defense was... uninspiring. Blake Griffin didn’t offer much on the defensive end either. 15 minutes into the game, Steve Nash made the change.

We’ve written a lot of very kind things about Nicolas Claxton, and for good reason. He’s one of the best performers in the league according to a variety of catch-all metrics (a hero in 538’s RAPTOR rating, in particular), and he seems to just affect games for the better every time he gets inserted in the fold.

This is one HECK of a finish from Kevin Porter Jr., who, good lord, has some serious star power. But Nicolas Claxton makes this shot as difficult as humanly possible by mirroring his footwork with near-perfection on the drive. Just a better make.

Claxton’s recent performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves was probably one of his three weakest performances to date during the 2020-2021 season. The defense was there as always. Duh. But he was forcing shots on offense, repeatedly attempting to “show the bag” by lofting a variety of unbalanced hook-shots.

He was a different player against Houston. This would’ve been a forced running hook a game ago; on Wednesday against Houston, it was a nice read out of the short-roll to a shooter (Joe Harris) rising above the break.

Baby steps. With every game, Claxton comes one step closer to winning over the coaching staff’s trust—potentially leading to a longer leash in the postseason.

“He’s just learning the ups and downs of the game, the flows of the game; how to manage his wind; when to make an impact; how he can make an impact without having the ball, with having the ball; playing alongside other players that have different skillsets; being able to adjust and do it on the fly, come in play 5 minutes, sometimes play 20 minutes, sometimes not play at all,” said the always pensive Kyrie Irving of Claxton.

Baby steps, as Kyrie put it. With every game, Claxton comes one step closer to winning over the coaching staff’s trust—potentially leading to a longer leash in the postseason. Who knows, maybe he’ll be starting soon.

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What’s next

The Nets will be back in action Thursday as the team hosts the Charlotte Hornets in the second game of a back-to-back. The game is set to tip at 7:30 PM ET.

For a different perspective, check out The Dream Shake - our sister site covering the Houston Rockets.