Saturday, December 2

Kyrie Irving drops 42 to help Nets beat Rockets, move up in standings

Players and coaches always say it, and a lot of people don’t really believe them when they do — that concept of taking each day as it comes or, if you’re feeling especially cliché, “take it one game at a time.”

It’s long been a refrain of Steve Nash and the Nets, but as the play-in game draws closer, and it seems more and more likely that the playoffs will present them with the same questions and challenges the regular season brought about, the worn adage has taken on a bit of life.

At a time when most teams are staring at the standings, or contemplating offseason plans, the Nets are in what Kyrie Irving called a situation he’s never been in: a different sort of pressure, a looming uncertainty, long minutes every game, and a good bit of fun, too.

So even though it was the last-place Rockets at Barclays Center Tuesday night, and even though the best the Nets can possibly do was move up in the standings enough to play one play-in game instead of two, Irving played his 40 minutes for 42 points, the Nets withstood a furious fourth-quarter comeback, and they held off the Rockets, 118-105. They were rewarded: Both the Hornets and Hawks lost, putting the Nets eighth place with three games to go (the Nets own the tiebreaker).

The Nets led by as many as 21 late in the third, but the Rockets got within six on the back of a 15-0 run that started with 1:06 left in that quarter and spanned nearly four minutes into the fourth. Irving, though, hit back-to-back jumpers to give the Nets the 95-84 advantage with 7:40 left.

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Kevin Durant scored 18 points with nine rebounds and Cam Thomas added 13 off the bench.

Kevin Porter Jr. scored 36 for the Rockets and Jalen Green added 30. 

“We’re going to play free and do everything we can and prepare for this play-in tournament,” Irving said before the game. “I’ve never been in a situation like this where late in the season, all these games matter. Usually, you’re just trying to fine tune your game and work on details and get some rest, but I’ve been playing 40 minutes at the end of the season. It’s probably one of few times in my career, even when I think about my first few years in Cleveland, if we weren’t winning as many games toward the end of the season, and there still wasn’t as much pressure” as this.

Irving, who came into the game shooting just 36.2% over the last five games, got off to a hot start, with 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting in the first quarter, but the Nets let up 12 points on five turnovers in the frame, and only led the Rockets 30-25 going into the second quarter — this despite the Rockets shooting just 2-for-12 from three.

The Rockets were able to tie it early in the second quarter before the Nets came alive, taking off on a 17-4 run that saw Bruce Brown score eight points, including a pull-up three for the 13-point lead with 6:15 left in the half. Irving’s three with 44.1 seconds left gave them a 64-47 advantage, their largest lead of the game, and their biggest halftime lead at Barclays since Jan. 15. The Nets were aided by the Rockets own struggles, though, as they went just 3-for-9 from the stripe in the first half, shot 37.7% and were outrebounded 31-24.

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It was, in all, they did what they had to against a team they should have beaten. And that’s all they can deal with at one time, especially in a season that’s been marked by a special sort of uncertainty. Nash, before the game, leaned into it.

“I think it’s tricky in the NBA environment to outthink yourself and try to think you’ve got the master plan and to come up with ways — (like) let’s rest guys this game and we’ll get it back in this game or we’ll limit minutes tonight, so we have guys fresh for tomorrow night,” he said. “It almost never works out that way in the NBA so I think it can be foolish to think you can script it or cheat the game…Right now, the goal is to win tonight and wake up tomorrow and figure out what we’re doing, but I imagine tomorrow morning we’re going to try to win again and it will probably stay that way.”

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