BOSTON — With the Nets on an NBA-worst four-game skid and Kyrie Irving having season-ending surgery, coach Kenny Atkinson spoke about having to figure this out themselves, about embracing the challenge.
The Nets embraced it, and rose to the occasion. And Caris LeVert led the way, with a sublime career performance to carry Brooklyn to a 129-120 come-from-behind overtime win in Boston.
LeVert poured in a career-high 51 points, including 37 after halftime and every Nets point in overtime when they outscored the Celtics 11-2. The Nets scored a franchise-record 51 points in the fourth quarter, rallying from a 21-point hole in the third to win in overtime.
“Every year is a strange year in the NBA. It’s never what you think. That’s what I’m learning as a head coach; it’s never what you think it’s gonna be. I think it helps you grow,” said Atkinson, who hasn’t had Kevin Durant at all and lost Irving for much of the season. But LeVert stood in with a star turn Irving would have been proud of.
Durant clearly was.
“That 50 was beautiful, Vert. Thank you for that masterpiece,” Durant tweeted.
“I know not having those guys, obviously it’s not ideal, but we’ve also learned a lot about the team — learned a lot about our players,” Atkinson said. “You learn a lot through these struggles and the fight, the desperate fight we’re going through right now to get in the dance. I look at it positively, we’re learning a lot this season.”
The sellout crowd of 19,156 at TD Garden taunted the Nets with chants of, “Where’s Kyrie? Where’s Kyrie?” But LeVert proved enough.
“[LeVert’s] a heck of a player,” Brad Stevens said. “He’s one of the young guards in the league that’s continuously risen and looks like he’s going to be a good player for a long time. The way he maneuvers, attacks on the pick-and-roll, can play off the ball, can shoot the ball, can play downhill and he’s big. Yeah, he’s good — really good.”
On Tuesday, LeVert was great, shooting 17 of 26 and taking over in overtime.
Even with Jayson Tatum (illness) out, the Nets trailed 71-50 after a Jaylen Brown 3-pointer with 6:28 left in the third, and still trailed by 17 going into the fourth.
Atkinson had seen enough from his struggling starters, and went with LeVert surrounded by his bench. That unit cut into the lead and outscored Boston 51-34 in the fourth quarter, the highest-scoring period in team history.
The Nets got within seven, first on Rodions Kurucs’ finger roll to make it 93-86, and then LeVert’s free throws to make it 95-88.
LeVert drilled a 3-pointer to pull Brooklyn within 104-100 with 2:47 to play. And after little-used two-way Chris Chiozza hit another 29 seconds later to cut the deficit to three. Another LeVert 3 pulled the Nets within 110-108.
DeAndre Jordan’s foul on Robert Williams’ dunk gave Boston a three-point play and a 111-108 cushion. But after the Nets won a jump ball down three with 1.4 seconds left, LeVert goaded Marcus Smart into an ill-advised foul out at the arc. He sank all three free throws to force overtime.
That’s where they won it.
“I love it. I think it’s embrace the struggle. I know that sounds corny but we have to wrap our arms around this,” Atkinson said. “I think this is where you really learn a lot about your group. Anyone that says we’re waiting for next year I’m like, no, we’re building for next year.
“Kyrie and KD aren’t involved. I think this will help us down the line. I’ve told KD and Kyrie you know we don’t need you guys flying in on your cape. We’d love to have you fly in on your capes, but this will be good for us to go through what we’re going through now. I really believe that.”