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Kyrie Irving scores 37 as shorthanded Nets fall in gutsy comeback vs. Sixers, 123-117

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Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Sure, it’ll count as a loss in the record books. But consider this a moral victory.

The shorthanded Nets, who were without four of their biggest weapons - Kevin Durant, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, fell to the Sixers, 123-117. With the loss, the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed belongs to Philadelphia. Brooklyn falls to 37-18 on the season and are now a game behind the Sixers for the first seed.

They did not go gentle into that good night.

The Sixers led 112-90 with 8:21 remaining but the Nets second unit provided life and hope when they needed it, holding Philadelphia scoreless for nearly five minutes. The Nets flipped the game, forging a 21-2 run to cut the deficit to only five entering the final two minutes of play with Kyrie Irving on the bench.

It was Alize Johnson (+16 in 12 minutes), Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown leading the charge. The three finished with a total of 39 points, led by Shamet’s 17.

“The activity and hustle. They worked for each other on both ends of the floor. Scrapped and they were able to recover the momentum and played really well,” Nash said on his second unit’s late game comeback.

The Sixers capitalized off free throws late to avoid a demoralizing loss at home, making 8-of-11 in the last 1:16. When Nash was asked about why he didn’t put Irving back in the game late, the Nets head coach said he didn’t want to risk any injury to his guard and wanted to reward the second unit with an extended opportunity.

“A little bit. I thought about it but I didn’t want to take the group out that was doing so well. They put their starters back in. I wanted to reward those guys for playing well. Kyrie was amazing for us tonight but he also has had a few days off. I didn’t want to put him back in and risk any sort of return to play injury,” Nash said. “Overall, I’m just proud of the way the guys played and happy we kept everyone healthy throughout the game.”

Despite being shorthanded, in the end, the Nets put up a fight and there were plenty of positive takeaways beginning with DeAndre Jordan. The Nets veteran big man, who had played in one of the last six games heading into Wednesday’s contest, proved he is Brooklyn’s best option to defend Joel Embiid, who finished with 39 points on 13-of-19 shooting overall to go along with 13 rebounds in 33 minutes.

“It’s a testament to how good of a player he is. I thought we were doing a pretty good job and then you look up and he’s got 30 in like 22 minutes,” Nash said. “I thought DJ was really good and did a really good job. Stuck to the game plan and had some good one-on-one possessions with him and stuck to our game plan while doing so. That’s why he [Embiid] is an MVP candidate.”

Jordan complemented his defensive play with some good offensive play, finishing with 12 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes. The Nets veteran big shot 6-of-7 in the loss.

“We wanna see him carry on that effort consecutively moving into the next game whether he’s playing or not. So he’s done a great job of keeping that mentality and adjusting his attitude to being ready at all times,” said Kyrie Irving of Jordan’s comeback performance. Irving also gave Jordan props for his vertical gravity as a lob-threat, which, hello:

Speaking of, Kyrie, the “Big One” in this one, had himself quite an outing, recording 37 points to go along with nine assists, three rebounds in 33 minutes of play. Irving finished the contest shooting 13-of-22 from the field and 1-of-3 from deep.

While Irving held the spotlight offensively, the shorthanded Nets got strong contributions from Jeff Green, who finished with 15 points in 28 minutes and Shamet, who filled in the void of ball-handling. Shamet scored 17 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field in 36 minutes.

The shorthanded Nets began the game with their 29th different starting lineup - a franchise record - that featured Irving, Jordan, Shamet, Joe Harris and Jeff Green.

The Sixers started the contest attacking feeding the ball down low, scoring 10 of their first 15 points in the paint while the Nets looked stagnant offensively, trailing 15-10 with 6:44 remaining.

Jordan, who scored six points and 11 rebounds in the first, kept the Nets afloat early as they tried to keep the ball out of the paint. The Nets veteran big provided Brooklyn good minutes and played with an aggressive edge on both ends of the floor with active hands and high awareness. His 11 rebounds in the first marked a new high for rebounds in a single frame by any Net this season.

While Jordan served as the x-factor combatting Embiid in the first period, Irving was the staple, scoring 10 points and four assists on 5-of-6 shooting in 10 minutes. Brooklyn ended the first trailing 32-28.

Brooklyn opened the second hitting three of their first five shots but got to the charity strike early while the Harris led the Sixers offensively with nine points in five minutes to forge a 12-2 run. Brooklyn responded, cutting the deficit to six points entering the final two minutes and closed out the half on a strong note on the back of Irving, who entered the break with a game-high 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting but his impact was also felt outside filling the box score. The Nets guard put together a series of key stops to go with two steals and seven assists while using his ability to get to the charity strike (6-of-6). Irving scored or assisted on 37 of the Nets 58 points.

While Jordan stuffed the stat sheet with rebounds and proved he’s the Nets best option to defend Embiid — who had 21 points on 6-of-16 from the field and 7-of-8 from the free throw line — his defense came with a small price. The veteran center picked up three fouls in the first half (all defending Embiid) but hit the break with 12 rebounds to go along with six points.

Brooklyn entered the break trailing 65-58 but was shooting 56.4 percent overall but only shot eight threes in the half, going 2-of-8 (25.0 percent). The Nets turnovers held big value against themselves in the first half, resulting in 17 points for Philadelphia on nine turnovers

The Sixers were the aggressors in the opening minutes of the third on the back of Embiid, who scored nine of Philadelphia’s 14 points to grow the Nets deficit to 10 with 6:43 remaining. Brooklyn opened the second half stagnant with Philadelphia giving them tough looks - going 5-of-11 in that span - generating offense from their defense.

Philadelphia played very well coming out of their timeout with 6:43 remaining; forging a 6-0 run to boost their lead to a game-high 16. The Sixers continued to generate offense and push the ball in transition off the Nets missed shots and costly turnovers. Like the first half, the Nets remained in the game but couldn’t pile together consistency on the defensive end to get over the hump as Philadelphia hit the final 12 minutes of play nursing a 94-84 lead.

It was all Sixers to begin the fourth with Philadelphia forging a 15-6 run to grow their lead to 19 without Embiid or Simmons on the floor. The Nets didn’t fade away, chipping away at the deficit and with 4:41 remaining, Brooklyn cut the deficit to 12 leaving Doc Rivers to send Simmons and Embiid back into the contest. In the end, Philadelphia escaped with the win but certainly not a win that will be celebrated in the locker room.

The Film Room

You can’t fault the effort.

As mentioned, the Nets hung on until the very end, even in spite of below average games from some of Brooklyn’s key pieces (namely a 3-for-7 night from Joe Harris). Landry Shamet flashed his evolving chops with the rock in his hands. DeAndre Jordan appeared resurgent once again, bodying up Joel Embiid and forcing the MVP candidate big man into some tough shots. Jeff Green hit some utterly absurd circus shots. Alize Johnson was the difference-maker in Brooklyn’s resurgent crunch-time comeback.

But Kyrie Irving was the storyline. Duh. 13-for-22! The Sixers did everything they could to halt Brooklyn’s All-Star point-guard/shooting guard/whatever you wanna call him. Head coach Doc Rivers threw different defenders at Irving, oscillating between Ben Simmons, Danny Green, and Matisse Thybulle. It didn’t matter. Irving was too slippy, too quick for any of those dudes.

Rivers adjusted his coverages to try and slow the maestro ball-handler down. No cigar. Throw single coverage his way? That’s a whiplash-inducing spin move into a hanging right-handed layup.

Okay, so how about some “ICE coverage, in which Ben Simmons presses Kyrie Irving to the baseline with the support of a lurking Joel Embiid behind him in help. How’d that fare?

Well, not great. Brooklyn countered with the logical solution — some side pick-and-roll — and used the threat of DeAndre Jordan’s roll to pull Embiid away from the action. With Simmons still sending Kyrie Irving to his right, the scoring aficionado happily obliged by lofting a gorgeous teardrop layup with inertia, gravity, and the heavens above working against him. Just crazy.

Hedging was ineffective as well — hedging, of course, being when the screener’s defender steps out in front to stop the ball-handler from getting to the basket during a pick-and-roll set (typically done to assist the ball-handler’s defender should they get clipped by a pick). That’s what Furkan Korkmaz does here to bail out Matisse Thybulle after he got nailed by a Jeff Green midcourt “step-up” screen. Irving countered by waiting patiently (young guards, patience is key!) for the defense to fall back into shape before hitting Thybulle with a series of snappy crosses.

He’s got every counter you could want... for every possible coverage.

Bruce Brown isn’t scared of a series against the Sixers

If the season were to end today, the 76ers would advance to the postseason with spot #1 in the Eastern Conference locked up with the Nets trailing at #2. The allure of home-court advantage is oh-so-appealing; just spend an afternoon browsing “Nets Twitter.”

Bruce Brown, however, expressed confidence in his group, regardless of who does or doesn’t enjoy the home-crowd buzz for 4 possible games.

“Super Confident,” said Brown. “You seen what happened today.”

Looking at the Nets gutsy performance, it’s tough to argue.

“KD sucks, KD sucks”

Really, sports fans? Kevin Durant didn’t play, but Philly fans proved once again they are, after all, Philly fans. With KD on the bench at Wells Fargo Center, a number of the 4,300 fans on hand decided, for whatever reason, to chant about him...

KD merely smiled and said, “Wait, what did I do?.” He has not played a single minute vs. the Sixers this season. Secret weapon much? Stephen A. Smith offered a commentary on Thursday. Big mistake, said Stephen A.

KD’s big day on the stock market

Of course, KD was smiling! Durant and his partner/agent, Rich Kleiman, got even richer on Wednesday when one of their investments paid off big time.

Founded in 2012 as a way to simplify the purchase of bitcoin, Coinbase has emerged as the most popular crypto exchange in the U.S. and soared in value alongside digital currencies.

No word on how much KD’s investment is worth, but it’s not a small amount.

As Sponge Bob might say...

Per Will Hanley.

What’s next

The Nets will return to action Friday when the team hosts the Charlotte Hornets. The game is set to tip at 7:00 PM ET.

For a different perspective, check out Liberty Ballers - our sister site covering the Philadelphia 76ers.