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Nets grind out win over Pistons thanks to James Harden

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The Nets came out of their last meeting with the Pistons as the NBA’s most maddening team. They escaped this one as the league’s hottest.

The shorthanded Nets pulled out a workmanlike 100-95 victory over Detroit before 1,364 at Barclays Center, the kind of ugly defense-minded slugfest they never would’ve won a month ago — before their season-tuning epiphany.

After a humiliating loss Feb. 9 in Detroit — in which they played no defense and allowed .560 shooting, .448 from 3-point range — the Nets were a disappointing 14-12. Worse, they’d shown little on-court chemistry and a tendency to get upset by teams they perceived as beneath them.

It was, in short, a bad look. And its one they’ve rectified since.

Despite a poor shooting night, the Nets (26-13) improved to 12-1 since choking on that humble pie, an epiphany that made them self-evaluate and decide what kind of team they really want to be. They’ve committed to being a legitimate contender, and know they’ll need to defend to do it.

“Yeah, they got the message. They didn’t want to play like that; they didn’t want to have that level of application or togetherness,” coach Steve Nash said. “And since then, they’ve taken it to heart and they’ve taken their fair share of the responsibility.

James Harden, who had another triple-double, puts up a jumper during the Nets' 100-95 win over the Pistons.
James Harden, who had another triple-double, puts up a jumper during the Nets’ 100-95 win over the Pistons.
NBAE via Getty Images

“As coaches, we’re here to facilitate their best effort; but without them really wanting it, really caring, it’s not going to happen. So their level of care has been great. And they’ve been consistent. And we’re really proud of them as a staff for the way they’ve played.”

The Nets shot just .222 (6-for-27) from 3-point range, but they relied on defense and balance to pull this out.

After the Nets blew a 12-point lead, a Rodney McGruder floater pulled Detroit within 90-89 with three minutes left. Mason Plumlee followed with an alley-oop dunk to give the Pistons a 91-90 lead.

But James Harden got to the line and sank both free throws to put the Nets back ahead.

Plumlee sank just one of two on the other end to knot it, and Harden’s driving layup untied it. Kyrie Irving came up with a Jerami Grant turnover, and Harden’s floater padded the lead to four with 1:04 left in regulation. Harden hit another that served as the dagger, sending the Nets to a 99-93 lead and the Pistons into a timeout.

The clock read :19.1, but the contest was over.

Harden finished with 24 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds to notch his ninth triple-double as a Net, already just three off the team record set by Jason Kidd in 2006-07 and again the next year. Kyrie Irving had 18 points and Landry Shamet scored 15 on his 24th birthday.

But more important, the Nets held Detroit to just .409 shooting overall, and .258 from deep.

All but one game in the Nets’ hot streak has come without Kevin Durant, who is still out with a strained left hamstring, while recently acquired Blake Griffin (who scored nine points for the Pistons against the Nets in that Feb. 9 tilt) hasn’t made his Brooklyn debut yet.

No matter.

A Nicolas Claxton turnover — the Nets’ sixth — led to a Josh Jackson fast break basket and a 30-28 Pistons lead. But the Nets quickly responded with an 11-2 run, capped by Irving’s pull-up for a 39-32 lead with 6:33 left in the first half.

The Nets opened the second half on a 7-0 run to make it 58-46.

Irving found Shamet for a 3 to make it 69-60 with 2:54 left in the third. The Nets eventually lost the lead, falling behind on Plumlee’s dunk. But that’s when Harden and the defense took over.

Grant led the Pistons with 22. But the Nets’ vastly improved defense — with Harden and Irving having made conspicuous strides — held firm.

“The familiarity with what we’re trying to accomplish, the experience, the collective experience of trying to defend the way we’re asking them to defend,” Nash said. “But also just caring and competition. They’ve shown a lot of care for each other and for winning and they’ve competed.

“No matter what defensive scheme you’re striving to play, there is no successful defense without a heck of a lot of caring and competition. So that’s been really good.”

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