CLEVELAND — All-Stars aren’t always great. Sometimes they’re just great when they have to be. That’s what D’Angelo Russell was Wednesday.
And with his Nets desperately looking to stanch the bleeding and go into the All-Star break with something — anything — to feel good about, Russell provided it. He took over in the third overtime and carried Brooklyn to a 148-139 win over the Cavaliers before 17,434 at Quicken Loans Arena.
Set to play in his first career All-Star Game this weekend, Russell shrugged off a slow start to pour in a game-high 36 points, 24 of those in the three overtime periods. And with the Nets unable to shake the pesky Cavs, Russell personally outscored Cleveland 11-3 to open the third OT.
Russell hit his first five shots of that extra session while the Cavs missed three of their first four and coughed up a turnover. His pull-up put Brooklyn ahead 139-131 with 2:11 left to play. And even after Jordan Clarkson stemmed the tide with a 3-pointer, Russell wouldn’t let the Nets lose.
The young point guard had 14 points in the third OT alone, hitting all six of his shots and both 3-point attempts.
Anybody looking for tangible proof of Russell’s development just had to watch this. Or ask the Cavs.
“All credit goes to him,” general manager Sean Marks told The Post. “He’s put in the work, completely bought in. He came here, and the first thing he told Kenny [Atkinson] was: ‘Coach me hard.’ And he’s responded.”
The Nets (30-29) had lost five of their previous six, and six of eight since Spencer Dinwiddie underwent thumb surgery on Jan. 28. But with a short bench, Joe Harris had 25 points and DeMarre Carroll 18 points, seven boards and a clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer to force a third OT.
Caris LeVert got his first start since Nov. 12 and had 12 points and nine assists. He’d missed 42 straight games after dislocating his foot in Minnesota. But with Rodions Kurucs out and LeVert’s minutes limit eased in his third game back, he got the nod.
The Cavaliers (12-46) were missing starting center Tristan Thompson and rested forward Kevin Love. But the Nets will take any win they can get.
The Nets desperately wanted to go into the All-Star break with a good taste in their mouths. They almost left stewing on humble pie, served up in the form of another loss to a lottery-bound cellar dweller. Two games ago it was Chicago, and on Wednesday they barely escaped.
“It’s important to finish off the right way before the break and, after a tough loss against Toronto, bouncing back and having a good performance,” Atkinson had warned. “Every game is so difficult. Our mentality is that we’re humble enough that no game is a guarantee. The records don’t always indicate how talented a team is. We have to play well to get wins.”
Atkinson has steadfastly avoided acknowledging the Nets being in a playoff race, but after they looked past Chicago and came out flat in a costly defeat, he openly talked about their designs on the postseason. It was by design, to put pressure on his players, a calculated piece of psychology.
This one was enough to send them back to the therapist’s chair.
The Nets still trailed 77-67 in the third, and were down 83-78 before Russell finally woke up. Just 1-for-11 with six turnovers up to that point, he hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give them an 84-83 edge. The rest was tooth-and-nail, from the rest of the fourth through the first overtime and through the second.
Colin Sexton got to the rim to knot it with 02.8 seconds left in the first OT.
The Nets led 125-124 after Harris’ layup but Clarkson hit a high arcing floater over Allen’s long outstretched arm with 39.5 seconds left.
When Allen missed inside amid heavy contact, David Nwaba not only got the defensive board, but — after Clarkson missed a step-back jumper — snared a dagger offensive board with 7.1 seconds to play. The Nets had no choice but to foul, and after Clarkson sank both with 3.8 seconds left, Carroll hit a prayer at the buzzer to force a third OT.