MILWAUKEE – The Nets showed what it’s going to take for them to be a playoff team. Even on a night when their two best players don’t have it, the Nets have to find a way to get a win.
Considering the importance of the game, where it was and what Vince Carter and Devin Harris were doing to their own and the team’s shooting percentage, this had to rank as one of the most impressive victories of the season.
They left the Bradley Center with a 99-95 win that really counted double because they moved within one-half game of Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot and to a 2-1 edge in the season series.
The first tiebreaker if the two teams are deadlocked at season’s end is head-to-head battles. They play for the last time on March 30 at the IZOD Center.
Back to this game: the Nets normally can’t survive nights when Harris has more turnovers (five) than field goals (three) or when Carter misses 75 percent of his shots.
But the Nets were able to withstand Carter’s 5-for-20 performance and Harris’ 3-for-14 effort that was influenced by an apparent asthma attack and come back from 10 down in the third because they defended and got the proverbial contributions from everybody.
The Nets’ zone defense was effective if not stalwart. They held the Bucks to 38.5 percent shooting, and Richard Jefferson was just 4-of-18 from the field.
Rookie Brook Lopez was a stud with 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. But the Nets don’t win this game without the bench.
Ryan Anderson, who hadn’t played the prior two games, was a perfect 3-for-3 and scored 13 points off the bench in 13 minutes over the third and fourth quarters. And Keyon Dooling, playing with an arthritic hip, and Jarvis Hayes, with partially torn ligaments in his left thumb, buried huge buckets in the fourth period.
Dooling hit two 3-pointers early, and Hayes sunk another trey off a Carter feed with 18.5 seconds left that gave the Nets the lead for good, 93-90.
“Ryan came in and gave us a huge lift after not playing the last couple of games,” Hayes said. “He came in with sense of urgency and he kind of picked up everybody else. We fed off his energy in the second half.”
Coach Lawrence Frank called each of the three bench guys a “game changer,” which they were.
If the Nets lost this game, they would have been in 10th place, 2 ½ in back of Milwaukee and been behind in the season series with games upcoming against the Celtics Wednesday night and in Orlando on Friday. So this was as close to a must-win in March as there is.
“We’re all jockeying for that same position,” Dooling said. “That makes it more gratifying.”
“It’s big for a lot of reasons — just the time of the season when we need wins, when we could have easily folded,” Carter said. “I’m glad to see guys come together and play well.”
It’s not always going to be like this. As long as Harris is healthy, and this isn’t a recurring thing — he has exercise-induced asthma and said he never had it as bad as last night — the Nets’ stars aren’t going to shoot like this on most nights. But it’s important that their teammates picked them up.
The bench guys came in and were game changers. They may wind up being season changers.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)