James Harden carries Nets to hard-fought win over Trail Blazers

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The Nets were shorthanded, but they didn’t come up short. They got their three-game road trip started the right way, gutting out a 116-112 victory over Portland at Moda Center on Tuesday night.

The Big 3 pared down to a Big 1, James Harden led the way with 25 points, 17 assists and seven rebounds. And with Kyrie Irving out, Jeff Green, Joe Harris and Nic Claxton all picked up the slack as the Nets pulled out a come-from-behind win.

“I think every game is a test for us,” Harden said. “We’re not allowed to take anyone lightly. We don’t have the luxury of that. Every night we prepare for our opponent to the best of our ability, and the coaches do a really good job of that to prepare us and we go out there and try to execute.”

“It reminds me a lot of Houston [the past few years]; the ball’s in James’s hands a lot,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s a playmaker, facilitator, scorer, so he does a little bit of everything.”

The Nets (30-14) won for the 16th time in their last 18 games, and ran their team-record winning streak against Western Conference foes to nine straight. They moved to a half-game behind Philadelphia for first place in the Eastern Conference.

And they did it without Irving (family matter), Kevin Durant (hamstring), Landry Shamet (ankle) and Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL). That’s how good Harden was.

“Play hard, play the right way, play together, try to improve at what we do,” coach Steve Nash said. “Win or lose, we’ve set all year that we just want to continually find improvement, areas to grow. So nothing’s changed there. We want to play the right way, approach the game the right way and get better. If we do that we don’t lose, it’s been progress.”

The Nets used a 16-5 run to take a seven-point fourth-quarter lead. It was three with the ball and 16.5 seconds left when Harden was charged with a turnover, Derrick Jones Jr. winning a jump ball against Claxton (16 points, nine boards). Brooklyn gave a foul and Robert Covington made just one of two free throws to make it 114-112.

Green (20 points) iced it at the stripe.

“We’re going to fight. We’re looking for the challenge the Western Conference has to offer,” Green said in an on-court TV interview after the game. “We kept our composure and got stops when we needed to.”

The Nets got the NBA-leading Utah looming Wednesday on the tail end of a brutal back-to-back, and then Detroit on Friday.

The Nets led 69-68 after a Bruce Brown layup. But they coughed up a 9-1 run, capped by a Jones 3 that made it 77-70 with 8:32 left in the third quarter.

Brooklyn still trailed 88-84 following a put-back by noted Nets-killer Enes Kanter. The Nets responded by reeling off a 16-5 run, including the first six unanswered points.

Harden’s free throw put the Nets ahead by a deuce with 1:28 in the period, and his alley-oop to Claxton kept them up 92-91 going into the fourth.

A Blake Griffin bucket put them up 96-93. And Claxton sandwiched a tip-in and transition layup around a Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot rebound of a CJ McCollum miss. His fastbreak bucket gave the Nets their biggest edge of the night at 100-93 with 10:03 to play.

When the Nets saw the lead shrivel to two on Covington’s running 3-pointer, Harden found Tyler Johnson for a 3 of his own to answer. Claxton padded it back to 110-103 with 5:24 left. It could have been a lob by Harden or a missed floater; either way, it was a seven-point edge.

“Steve Nash is doing a good job. It’s one of the best teams in the league, and now he’s had to manage some injuries, with Durant being out and Kyrie being out and having to adjust along the way and still managing to win games,” Stotts said. “You know they have high expectations, and he’s got a great staff there, and I think he’s managing his team, which is what you need to do as a head coach.”

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