Steve Nash has countless great memories of Phoenix from his playing days. Tuesday night, he made the first great one of his coaching career.
As Nash faced the Suns for the first time as a head coach, his shorthanded Nets turned a huge deficit into an even bigger rally, pulling out a 128-124 victory before a stunned crowd of 3,181 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
The Nets played without Kevin Durant (hamstring strain) and late scratch Kyrie Irving (tight back) as their Big 3 was down to a Big 1. Despite a huge night from James Harden, who finished with 38 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, the Nets fell behind by 24. But they fought back for their second-biggest comeback victory since 2012, using a late 12-0 run to do it.
“James, he does a lot for this team,” Nash said. “But I think most importantly, our team has still got to look long-term. What can we gain from [Tuesday]? How can we improve? How can we give ourselves a chance to win by continually refining what we’re trying to accomplish?
“And the guys have been good. We’ve had three games in a row where we’ve really stuck together, stuck to our principles and put in good performances. So something to build on. Win or lose, like I keep telling them, we want to get better and be a better team down the road down the line.”
The Nets trailed by as much as 73-49 in the second quarter. They rallied to pull within 108-106 on a Tyler Johnson 3-pointer with 6:40 to play. Still down 124-116 with under three minutes left, the Nets scored the game’s final 12 points.
Harden’s driving finger roll with 1:39 left got them within 124-121. Jeff Green drove the lane to cut the lead to one, and the Nets forced a Mikal Bridges miss. Harden then drilled a clutch 3-pointer to give the Nets their first lead of the night at 126-124 with 29.8 seconds remaining.
The Nets’ maligned defense forced a miss from Devin Booker, and Harden sank two free throws on the other end.
Nash and assistant Amar’e Stoudenmire were together in Phoenix during the Suns’ glory years, playing under current Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni. Nash won a pair of MVP awards in his 10 seasons with the Suns. But this will be his first great memory as a coach.
“Well, this place means a lot to me, obviously. It’s had some incredible years here, incredible teams, teammates, coaches,” Nash said. “The organization was first class, and the fans here are fantastic. So, living here, I lived here for 10 years and loved it, loved every minute of it.
“So to come back here and to actually be in the game, playing against them is very special. I feel very fortunate. And this is — I’m not the most sentimental person, that’s for sure — but it’s really exciting. just driving into the arena and seeing some familiar faces, people that mean a lot to me is very special.”
The Nets ran their winning streak to four. Now they head to face LeBron James and the Lakers on Thursday at Staples Center, with both Durant and Irving very much in doubt. But after using an NBA-high 20th different lineup (Tuesday marked a ninth straight game with different starters), it’s par for the course.
“I think guys are getting used to it. We said it from the start of the year: this is the way this year is going to be,” Nash said of the absences. “It’s kind of impossible during a pandemic and with a waterlogged schedule not to have things arise and consistently arise. I think guys kind of knew going in that this is the type of season we were going to face and they’re a little bit numb to it now.
“The challenge is for us to continue to improve no matter who comes out every night. How can we get better at what we’re trying to do so that we’re not giving away games or weeks. It’s a season where we’re constantly addressing issues, solving problems and working towards a bigger goal.”