James Harden and the Nets have been stifled as much as anyone this season by the NBA’s rule changes designed to call fewer fouls on non-basketball moves.
But head coach Steve Nash’s team climbed back from its latest ugly start Friday night by getting to the free-throw line consistently for the first time all season. The Nets overcame a 16-point deficit in the second quarter to even their record at 3-3 with a 105-98 comeback win over the Pacers at Barclays Center.
Harden sank 16 of 19 from the stripe and finished with a season-high 29 points (21 in the first half) and eight assists. Kevin Durant netted 22 points with 11 rebounds and seven assists in 37 minutes for the Nets, who have alternated losses and wins over their first six games.
The Nets exceeded their previous season-high in free-throw attempts (24) before the end of the second quarter and went 31-for-41 from the line overall.
“The game is being called very differently, I guess would be a fair way to put it,” Nash said. “Which is fine, I don’t necessarily have a gripe if it’s a league-wide thing, but you know usually the dust settles with some of these [changes].”
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 21 points to become the 48th player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points, while Paul Millsap added eight points in 13 minutes for the Nets.
Torrey Craig poured in 16 of his 28 in the first half and rookie Chris Duarte added 19 for the Pacers, who played without injured guards Malcolm Brogdon and former Net Caris LeVert.
“It’s a process for us. We lose Kyrie [Irving] and as guys are trying to work their way into shape and with 10 new guys, it’s different,” Nash said. “There’s I think a period of learning to play together and learning our best path toward scoring the ball effectively and efficiently is a process, and it’s going to take us some time.”
The sloppy Nets committed five turnovers in the first quarter, including three by Harden, and trailed 38-26 after one period. The Pacers extended their lead to 46-30 early in the second quarter on back-to-back offensive put-backs by Craig, but Millsap and Harden sparked a 23-5 run with 14 combined made free throws in the quarter.
“I think it’s got to be difficult for the officials, too, to change the way they ref so extremely. And I think usually it will come back to the middle,” Nash said. “I always want us to try and attack the basket, get in the paint. … Being diligent with attacking early and often and trying to make the defense collapse is something that’s important to our offensive success.”
The Pacers carried an early 16-7 rebounding edge in building their big lead, but the Nets finished strong on the boards (50-46 overall) to continue their trend of winning the battle on the glass in each of the three games they’ve won this season.
Durant also continues to log heavier minutes than last season, nearly 36 per game after averaging 33 last season in his first year back from Achilles surgery.
“It’s hard not to use Kevin Durant,” Nash said. “There’s the choice to use him and, then there’s just the fact that the ball finds Kevin Durant because he’s so difficult to defend.
“So it’s not all us being, ‘Let’s go to Kevin. Let’s go to Kevin.’ Sometimes it’s just that he’s just that good, that he inserts himself into the game even without us pressing that button time and time again. So part of it is just how talented and supernatural he is.”
Durant endured a rare moment of frustration in the third quarter, drawing a technical foul for hurling the ball into the stands. But Durant knocked down two more free throws and a 20-foot jumper and Aldridge buried four shots from the outside during a 17-7 spurt to close the third for an 85-74 Nets lead entering the final quarter.
The Pacers opened the fourth on a 16-5 run, however, and drew even on consecutive drives by T.J. McConnell and a free throw by Domantas Sabonis midway through the period. But Harden dropped in a baseline drive and then added two more free throws with 4:33 remaining to trigger a 13-2 run that sealed the victory for the Nets.