DETROIT — The Nets’ offense was spotty yet again. But their defense was tough, Kevin Durant was clutch, and that was enough.
They tipped off their longest road trip of the season with a 96-90 victory over the Pistons before 14,235 at Little Caesar’s Arena.
As they start a six-game road swing, the Nets ran their winning streak to four straight. And in keeping with their shocking new team DNA, they did their damage on the defensive end.
“Overall we just defended enough,” head coach Steve Nash said. “We finally started scoring the ball. First and third quarter we scored the ball, super stagnant and careless in the second and fourth. We built ourselves a nice lead fortunately.
“[The Pistons] had nothing to lose at that point. They started getting comfortable, knocking down shots, went on a run. Fortunately we got Kevin the ball in his spot a few times and were able to seal it.”
The Nets led by 16 entering the fourth quarter, and were up 88-78 with seven minutes left before coughing up eight unanswered points as their lead shriveled down to two. But that’s when Durant had six of his game-high 29 points in an answering spurt. His driving layup with 13.1 seconds left put the Nets up 94-89 and served as the dagger.
“I called sets and we executed the sets very, very well. Our screening, our positioning and our spacing. And I think that we just gave Kevin room to do what he does,” said James Harden, who almost had a dubious quadruple-double with 13 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds and nine turnovers.
Still, as head-scratching as some of Harden’s plays were — losing the ball and inexplicably not picking it up as a Saddiq Bey corralled it and ran in uncontested for a dunk — the Nets’ defense was ferocious throughout.
The Nets held Detroit to 37.9 percent shooting overall, and 11-for-34 from 3-point range. Top overall pick Cade Cunningham led the Pistons with 17 points, and exchanged jerseys with Durant afterward.
It turns out the Nets needed all of that defense. They found themselves locked in a 39-all brickfest at the half. The Nets were outscored 16-11 in the second quarter, shooting just 3-for-20 overall and 1-for-9 from behind the arc.
The last time the Nets shot 15 percent or worse in a quarter was Nov. 28, 2018 against Utah. It had been even longer since they mustered 11 or fewer points: Jan. 27, 2018 at Minnesota.
The Nets blitzed the Pistons coming out of the locker room from halftime, shooting 15-of-19 in the third quarter.
A midrange turnaround jumper by LaMarcus Aldridge gave the Nets a 78-62 edge going into the fourth. That’s when it got far closer and scarier than it should have.
Still leading 86-75 after an Aldridge pull-up with just over seven minutes to go, the Nets coughed up an 11-2 run. A pull-up 3-pointer from Cory Joseph sliced the lead to 88-86 with four minutes remaining.
Tempers flared a minute later, when ex-Piston Blake Griffin and Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart — who had been going at it all night — got into it for the second time in two years. Benches cleared and both players were assessed technical fouls.
Durant stanched the bleeding with a huge bucket. And after Cunningham’s 3-pointer pulled Detroit within 90-89, Durant hit a nine-foot fadeaway with 1:13 left to give the Nets a three-point edge.
Griffin — who fouled out after scoring 13 points in his best effort of the season — took a huge charge on Bey, and Durant’s layup with 13.1 served to essentially ice it.
But it was the defense — surprisingly top 10 in the league so far — that won it.
“I enjoy winning games, so guys making winning plays at the end fires you up. There’s a lot of guys that made a lot of great plays. I was happy to be out there and contribute,” said Griffin, who had five boards, took a couple of charges and got booed by the fans he gave an All-Star season to (2018-19). Still, he wasn’t surprised at the reaction.
“Surprising? No. I heard they booed Andre Drummond last night. What did he do? He just got traded. So, no. I assumed that was going to happen. So no, not surprising at all. I didn’t really hear it until the end.”
As his new team was sealing a victory over his old one.
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