James Harden goes after 36, the Nets gather from 19 points down to beat the Magic

Just in case anyone was wondering what the Nets could look like without Kevin Durant, the answer is that it was not pretty and it underlined his value as without a doubt the MVP for the NBA this season. But after a terrible first half by the Nets, it was James Harden who scored 36 points to lead a comeback from a 19-point deficit in the second quarter to a 115-113 victory Friday night at the Barclays Center.

The Nets took a seven-point lead for the final period, but the Magic came back with a 14-5 run that ended with a Terrence Ross three-pointer to a 97-95 lead with 8:29 left to play. The match was a draw to 104 after a three-pointer from Orlando’s Franz Wagner on the 5:11 mark, and both teams struggled to score down the stretch before two last-minute baskets by LaMarcus Aldridge got the Nets over the hump.

After a slow start to the opening period where he had the Nets’ only foul shot, Harden ended up coming to the line to burn his scoring with a 19-for-20 performance, including three with 9.2 seconds left to inspire “MVP “-chants of his own. The Nets (12-5) also got 22 from Patty Mills and 17 from the bench from James Johnson and 15 from Aldridge.

Jalen Suggs topped the Magic (4-12) with 21 points, but scored only four after the opening period, Wagner added 17, and Chuma Okeke had 17.

The lack of manpower that came into the match was reminiscent of some of last season’s low points. In addition to missing Durant, the Nets were also without Joe Harris (sprained left ankle) and Paul Millsap (personal reasons). And like all other matches this season, they were without the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving.

It indicated a heavy burden for Harden to carry without his superstar running mate Durant.

“I want James to be James within the framework of this group,” Nets coach Steve Nash said before the game. “This is not the Houston Rockets. It’s important … that he is able to go back and forth between his relationship with Kevin, and when Kevin is not on the field, his relationship with his other teammates.

“Can he find a good balance there and really be himself. I think he gets more confident, more rhythm, gets a little more explosion and gets into the paint more often.”

As it turned out, the most explosive player on the floor during the opening period was Magic’s Suggs, who had 17 points in that frame. Midway through the period, the Magic put together an extended 21-10 run that included six points each from Mo Bamba and Ross to build a 16-point lead, which they maintained until the end of a 41-point quarter. Bamba had 10 points in the period and came to the edge at will.

Midway through the second quarter, an 8-0 rise pushed Magic’s lead to 19 points. That was it, it was when the opening half ended, but the Nets reached a 10-0 reaction before the buzzer to reduce their deficit to single digits at 62-53. Harden had the last five points in that span and a total of 18 in the opening half, but the Nets had only 13 bench points and let the Magic shoot 55.0%.

Early in the third quarter, Harden unleashed a 20-6 explosion of eight points, and it included back-to-back three-pointers from Mills that sent the Nets into a 73-70 lead at 7:15 p.m. Suddenly, it was as if the Nets had regained a defensive mentality, and Harden provided the spark at the offensive end.

The Magic came back to level the game at 79, but the Nets kept them at 21 points during the period, leading 90-83 to the fourth quarter after a period of 37 points.

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