Nets latest losses raising concerns as play-in tournament looms

Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (13) dribbles against Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the second half at State Farm Arena.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It was “uncharacteristic” mistakes that cost the Nets on Thursday in Brooklyn and then undisciplined defense that cost them on Saturday night in Atlanta. In the most important stretch of the season, the Nets have failed to pick up two wins they desperately needed because of the circumstances they put themselves in.

On Saturday night that meant sending the Atlanta Hawks to the foul line a wapping 49 times compared to the Nets 19. Even worse, the Nets squandered a career night from Kevin Durant, which saw him put up a career-high 55 points and hit a new best eight threes in a single game.

In the end that still wasn’t enough for Brooklyn, which dropped down to 10th in the East and secured the need to go through the play-in round just to qualify for the playoffs.

“We’re fouling early,” Durant said. “We put them in the bonus early every quarter; 37-14 (difference in) free throw makes. And it’s not ’cause of the refs, it was because we’re reaching and being undisciplined and just playing too aggressive. That’s the game. They shot 42% from the field which is great defense, 31 from the three. They outrebounded us by two, and one more assist than us. Turnover game, but we still got more shots up than them. So it’s like just fouls. And we can’t do that if we want to be a winning team.”

Durant called that bad basketball and emphasized the need to not make such crucial mistakes after they’re able to lock down players well, only to give them free shots off a bad foul. It marked the second game where the Nets saw a massive discrepancy in the number of free throws they were given and what their opponents were given.

It wasn’t a question of officiating on Saturday though.

“It’s just execution,” Durant said. “If you’ve got somebody bottled up and they go up to shoot and right at the last second you (reach), it’s just undisciplined. And we do that a lot. We have guys bottled up, great defense and we end up fouling right at the end. If we want to grow and be a better team, that type of stuff can’t happen.”

The concern is now just how deep a hole the Nets have put themselves in heading into the final week of the season and how much gas is left in the tank to even make a deep run in the playoffs, which getting there isn’t a guaranteed outcome. Brooklyn’s 10th place position means that they’d have to win two single elimination contests just to advance to become the eighth seed in the East.

They’d have to first travel to play the ninth seed Charlotte Hornets, who they fell to last week, and then defeat the winner of the 7-8 matchup, which would end up being Atlanta or Cleveland, should the season end right now. The Nets face the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday in the penultimate regular-season game at Barclays Center.

Coupled with the Nets’ defensive mistakes on Saturday were the team’s offensive struggles. While Durant put on another herculean effort for Brooklyn, the rest of the Nets struggled to provide the added points that Brooklyn needed. Irving finished shooting 12-for-32 from the field, but did finish with 31 points.

He was the only other player on the floor that scored in double digits for the Nets, who were without Seth Curry, Goran Dragic and Bruce Brown.

“We just have to ease his burden on the offensive end,” Irving said. “He’s going to be Kevin Durant. We know who he is. We know what he’s capable of, but we have to be there to support him. And we have to be there ready to play just as much as he is and not allow frustration seep in at all.”

The Nets will need to find some sort of solution to their issues. They’re tied with the Hornets in the East, though Charlotte is still in front o them via the tiebreaker, and they trail the eighth-place Hawks by one game. The Cavaliers, who sit in seventh, are three games ahead.

Brooklyn is still very confident in what their team can do, which has been the sentiment all season as they’ve have had to overcome injury and COVID issues. Durant reiterated that after Saturday’s loss, but with so little time left on the calendar there isn’t much runway left for the Nets to figure it out with the play-in round looming.

And trying to get a better seeding just for that means needing every win they can muster, beginning on Tuesday with Houston.

“Go home, and — this is just a metaphor — you go home, you get your bullet-proof vest, you get your handgun, you get your rocket launcher, you get your AK, you get everything,” Irving said about the mentality for Tuesday. “You load up all the ammo — it’s just a metaphor people — and get ready for war. And you don’t just live with the results, but you go out there with a mental focus and a no-fear attitude.”