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The Nets, struggling and sans Kyrie Irving, needed something positive in the worst way. What they got Tuesday night was a sublime performance from Kevin Durant.
The former MVP looked like one again, lifting the Nets back from a huge deficit to a come-from-behind 122-116 win over the Nuggets at Barclays Center.
The Nets trailed by 18 points in the third quarter but rallied to take a lead. Trailing again, 113-111, late in the fourth quarter, they reeled off 10 unanswered points to knock off Denver.
Durant had a game-high 34 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds, including 14 points during a 36-11 third-quarter run that turned an 18-point hole into a seven-point lead. He and defensive ace Bruce Brown — put into the lineup at point guard to replace Irving, who was out again for personal reasons — led the rally down the stretch.
Brown had 16 points, six boards and three assists, while Caris LeVert — back in the sixth-man role with Brown starting — added 20 points, six assists and five boards off the bench. The Nets evened their record at 6-6 and will play the Knicks at the Garden on Wednesday.
“This season is so challenging,” coach Steve Nash said. “We’ve got our hands full. Literally, it’s getting up and getting to work every day and pushing these guys to continue to grow and to come together and build a team. So we just are pushing these guys to be the best they can be and to understand clearly and simply what we are asking for and get the best out of them. You just focus on the work ahead.”
Young center Jarrett Allen has had a breakthrough start to the season, but Denver’s Nikola Jokic provided a difficult challenge. The multifaceted Nuggets star had 23 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
“He’s an incredible test,” Nash said of Jokic. “His IQ, footwork, hand-eye coordination, shooting, vision, reading of the game is remarkable. So offensively he is a totally unique challenge because he is a point guard in the center position who can also be a traditional center on the block. Score the ball.
“He can score from 3, he can shoot it off the elbows and the free-throw line, and he can make plays at all three levels as well. So, completely unique player historically. So it’s a great challenge for us tonight to stay disciplined and to not give him any easy ones.”
Jokic and Jamal Murray (20 points) gave the Nets fits early.
A pair of Murray baskets gave the Nuggets 18-point lead early in the third quarter, first at 74-56, and then again at 76-58 with 10:32 left in the period.
But that’s when the Nets strung together their extended eight-minute run to retake control of the game. And naturally Durant was at the heart of it.
A Nets team that couldn’t buy a stop in the first half turned up the defensive intensity and forced the Nuggets to shoot just 3 of 12 with four turnovers. That fed the fast break, the Nets getting out in transition for easy buckets, hitting 13 of 16 themselves.
Durant had 14 points in the spurt, along with four assists — the last one a feed to Taurean Prince for a finger roll that made it 90-83 with 2:36 left in the period.
The Nuggets tied it at 107, 109 and 111. Jokic put Denver back ahead, but Brown got a bounce to knot the score again. When the Nets drew an offensive foul on Will Barton, they had a chance to go back ahead, and Brown was there again. He hit a baseline floater for a 115-113 lead on one end, and snatched a defensive rebound on the other.
Durant’s 7-foot jumper made it 117-113 with 1:14 to play, and the Nets forced a miss from Murray. Durant’s dagger 3-pointer on the other end essentially iced it with 27.9 seconds lef in regulation.