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Caris LeVert plays hero with game-winner for rolling Nets

DENVER — The Nets have had their fair share of heartbreakers. But Friday in Denver they came from behind in the final minute and got a game-winner in the closing seconds. And as it has been so often this season, it was Caris LeVert who pulled them out of the fire — and helped the Nets pull off a 112-110 upset of the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.

After trailing 110-106 with less than a minute left, the Nets (6-6) had pulled even. And then LeVert cleared out against Gary Harris and got a floater to drop with just 0.3 seconds on the clock. It was the go-ahead basket and when the Nets forced Malik Beasley into a miss at the buzzer, it became the game-winner.

LeVert had 17 points and five assists for the Nets. D’Angelo Russell had a team-high 23 points, while Jarrett Allen added 18 points and nine rebounds as they knocked off the Nuggets (9-3), who had the second-best record in the Western Conference and got a monster night from Nikola Jokic.

Even before the Nets tipped off, coach Kenny Atkinson was worried that his team would see the absolute best from Jokic, who has dominated them in the past and was seething over a poor game and rare criticism.

Jokic poured in a game-high 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, bullying his way to the rim over and over again. But the Nets overcame it.

“There’s no doubt about it. … He’s the guy you game plan for as a coach. He’s a tough guard. We haven’t found the solution to stop him. We’ve got to do something tonight to slow him down,” Atkinson warned beforehand.

“He’s a unique player. He’s a 7-foot guy that plays on the perimeter and can go in the post, a very difficult guard for us. He really hurt us last year. He’s obviously coming off a — to his standards — subpar game. That’s obviously a concern.”

Saying Jokic had hurt the Nets is like saying Denver has altitude. He utterly tormented them in their last trip to Denver, scoring a career-high 41 points on 16-of-25 shooting in November 2017. Friday, he was intent on an encore. But against the Nets, that wasn’t enough.

After a timid one-shot, six-turnover performance in his previous game, Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, Jokic came out strong Friday and gave Allen fits.

“It’s unique for him, but it’s something he’s got to do going forward,” Atkinson said with a shrug. “He’s a 21-year-old center learning the game. … It’s a good challenge for Jarrett. This is his growth playing against a guy like this.”

The Nets led by 14 in the first quarter and were up 42-28 in the second after an Allen Crabbe 3-pointer.

Their cushion was still 59-49 after LeVert hit a pair of free throws with 9:28 left in the third. And they took a 97-94 lead with an 8-2 run, but couldn’t hold it.

In a back-and-fourth final quarter, the score was tied at 94, 97 and 102, on Russell’s 3-pointer.

After LeVert missed two free throws, Allen grabbed the rebound over Jokic and dunked with a ferocity that left the Nuggets star on his back holding his jaw.

Jamal Murray tied it again at 104-all and 106-all. When Allen got blocked by Jokic, Beasley hit a turnaround for a two-point Denver lead. After Allen missed a hook shot, Paul Millsap’s cutting dunk extended the lead to 110-106.

But the Nets didn’t fold. They tied it again after Spencer Dinwiddie made a pair of free throws, Murray missed and Allen scored on a dunk with just 29.4 seconds left in regulation to knot it.

They finally gave Allen some help on Jokic, when Jared Dudley came over to double and take away the middle. Jokic spun baseline and traveled, giving the ball back to the Nets with 22.1 on the clock. And back to LeVert, who won it.

Up next are the defending champion Warriors.