Down 25 points to start the final frame in Sacramento, the Nets looked dead, their fight for a more secure playoff footing just as hopeless. The Kings were supposed to be one of the few uncomplicated games remaining on their schedule; they still have to tackle the top five teams in the East in the home stretch. And there they were getting curb-stomped by a team whose own postseason hopes had long fizzled.
A few seconds into the fourth, Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson, frustrated by the output of his usual rotation, assembled a weird grab-bag of lightly used forwards: the ox-strong and bumbling Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a YMCA-ready Jared Dudley, nondescript wing Treveon Graham, and rookie Rodions Kurucs. That closing lineup would swing the game, thanks mostly to its most vital member, D’Angelo Russell, who tore up Sacramento for 27 points in the last quarter. For the game, Russell paired his career-high 44 with 12 assists. Behind their all-star, the Nets, once down as many as 28 points at the tail end of the third, completed the largest comeback in franchise history. It was surreal shit.
Russell closed the gap almost single-handedly and with little time to spare. Between 4:43 and 1:33 in the fourth, the guard poured in 16 straight points for Brooklyn, four lay-ins, two of his trademark rainbow threes, some free throws. That got them within one point. The Nets followed a simple enough template: Just get Russell a decent screen or dribble-handoff to free him up on the left side of the floor, then stand back and watch him flay the Kings’ bigs for layup after layup. He’s not the fastest going downhill or cleverest with the finish, either. That Russell—who owns the bizarrely low free throw rate of 2.9 attempts a game, who finishes awfully at the rim and prefers to prematurely cut off his drives for little midrangers—feasted at the cup was as crushing an indictment of the Kings closing defense as you could find. They just didn’t take away the option.
Finally under a little ball pressure with just over a minute in regulation, Russell dimed up a wide-open Dudley. His three-pointer gave the Nets their first lead since the first quarter. Some seconds later, Dudley would attempt to draw a charge at the three-point line, which was, in all fairness, his best chance at guarding De’Aaron Fox. (Told you this was a weird win.)
On the final possession of the game, Hollis-Jefferson received the inbound and looked to get it to the guy who’d gotten the game that close in the first place. Stuck behind the wall of Fox’s fierce ball denial, Russell just told Hollis-Jefferson to go. So he did go. RHJ rumbled queasily to the hoop, and flipped over his shoulder one of the wackiest game-winners of the season, non-Jokic division.
Thus the 37-36 Nets hold on to their 7-spot in the East standings, with Detroit still in striking distance. Brooklyn, and a contract-year Russell especially, will be an annoying out for whoever ends up drawing them in the first round. This summer they’ll have to juggle their desire to retain their emergent star with their desire to lure a new one, but until then, they may be content to just watch D’Angelo cook.