PHILADELPHIA -- Kevin Garnett finished an alley-oop with the ease of a rookie, not an aging veteran.
"Fresh legs," a smiling Deron Williams said.
More like, healthy back.
The 37-year-old Garnett missed 19 straight games since Feb. 27 because of back spasms. The Nets went 14-5 over that span.
"I'm just glad I didn't mess anything up," Garnett said. "The guys have been playing great without me."
Garnett was back in the starting lineup and gave a taste of just how much better he makes the Nets. He scored on an alley-oop, made his first four shots, and had a nasty block on Michael Carter-Williams' layup attempt that knocked the rookie guard to the ground.
Garnett also passed Alex English to move into 14th on the NBA's career scoring list.
Coach Jason Kidd limited Garnett to 13 minutes and the veteran center did not play in the fourth quarter.
"It looked like 18, 19 years ago," Kidd said. "He understands what this time of the year means."
Garnett, who never had a serious back injury before, said he felt no discomfort in his back during or after the game.
"It just feels good to be able to move," he said.
Williams had 19 points and Mason Plumlee 16 for the Nets.
Thaddeus Young led the Sixers with 20 points.
The Sixers, who had won two of four after losing 26 straight games, sliced a 21-point hole down to two after Henry Sims put back Carter-Williams' miss on his second free-throw attempt. With a chance to tie the game at 96-all on the next possession, Carter-Williams made 1 of 2 with 1:05 left.
Mirza Teletovic's first bucket of the game was a 3-pointer with 48.4 seconds left that gave the Nets some breathing room.
Garnett was loose and all smiles in the pregame layup line, slapping hands and offering encouragement to his teammates. Pierce took on Garnett in a brief 1-on-1 battle, and yelled "Welcome back!" as he blew by him to toward the basket.
Garnett is the no longer the dominant All-Star of his Minnesota and Boston days, averaging 6.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 21 minutes in 49 games this season. But the layoff may help boost the life left in his legs that will be needed if the Nets are going to make any type of playoff run.
"I feel stronger than I have," Garnett said. "I'm just glad I was strong enough to be out there."
Garnett and Pierce turned back the clock on consecutive scores in the second -- Garnett's big dunk was followed by Pierce's 3-pointer for a 13-point lead. The Nets led by as many as 21 before the Sixers made their run late in the fourth.
Garnett and Pierce had a seat on the bench during crunch time. That allowed the Sixers to pounce.
Carter-Williams went rim-to-rim off his own defensive rebound and finished with a one-handed dunk over Andrei Kirilenko. He helped the Sixers stay within 10 points of the Nets.
The Sixers closed within three when Williams was fouled on a 3-pointer with 3:08 left. He made the free throw for a 94-87 lead. Williams made all six of his free-throw attempts in the game.
Hollis Thompson scored a career-high 18 points for the Sixers and Sims had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
"Where I draw my comfort, is that they continue to be coached," coach Brett Brown said. "We are doing our best to coach them. And we are seeing improvement. We are playing hard. And our young guys are playing their hearts out."
76ers C Byron Mullens (sprained left ankle) was inactive. ... Johnson has made a 3-pointer in 25 straight games. ... Carter-Williams had 11 assists without a turnover. The last 76ers rookie with at least 11 assists without a turnover was Allen Iverson on Feb. 11, 1997, at Cleveland.