In their second game back from a seven-game road trip, the Nets were hoping to enjoy the benefit of home cooking Monday night at Barclays Center. But it was the NBA-leading Bucks who feasted at the Nets’ expense with a dominant fourth-quarter performance in which they scored 40 points on their way to a convincing 131-121 victory.
Sixth-place Detroit, eighth-place Miami and ninth-place Orlando all lost, leaving an opening for the Nets to take a big step toward a playoff berth if they could engineer the upset. But it wasn’t to be. The Nets (39-39) remained stuck in seventh, a half-game behind the Pistons, a half-game ahead of the Heat and a game up on the Magic with four left to play.
Asked if those results eased the sting of losing to the Bucks, Caris LeVert said: “Yeah, that definitely helps us. I’m not going to lie and say we didn’t look at that. We’ve just got to focus on ourselves and get as many wins as we can.”
Considering how the Nets fought back from a 22-point first-quarter deficit to make it close in the third quarter, it really was an opportunity lost.
The Nets and Bucks played volleyball with the lead in the third quarter when it changed hands 16 times before the Bucks emerged with a 91-89 edge heading to the fourth quarter.
That’s when they turned up the heat, opening the period with a 10-2 burst that included seven points from Giannis Antetokounmpo for a 101-91 lead with 10:21 left. The Nets fought back a few more times but never got closer than three points the rest of the way.
Leading MVP candidate Antetokounmpo had 14 of his 28 points in the final period as he got downhill to the basket.
“I think we started to take some risks,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “We got more aggressive and started to deny. They got a lot of layups . . . We’re going to have a huge film session tomorrow about transition defense.
“When a great player brings up the ball, everyone kind of loses their principles. That’s what Giannis does to you. I’m proud that we fought back. They’re the best record in the NBA. I think you’ve got to be almost perfect to beat them, and we weren’t close to perfect. That’s why the score is what it is.”
D’Angelo Russell had a different kind of double-double for the Nets with 26 points and 10 rebounds, LeVert had 24 points, DeMarre Carroll added 20 and Joe Harris had 17.
The Nets had a whopping 55-40 rebounding advantage, but the Bucks (58-20) outscored them 68-42 in the paint.
Eric Bledsoe led the Bucks with 29 points and George Hill came off the bench to score 22 points. Antetokounmpo had 11 rebounds.
The Bucks can clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with one more win. Unfortunately for the Nets, their final four games include a visit to Milwaukee on Saturday for a rematch with Antetokounmpo and company.
Asked what they can do to control Antetokounmpo, Harris said: “I’m open to suggestions. He’s probably the best downhill player in the NBA right now. He’s arguably the best player in the league. When he gets a burst of speed and the court opens up for him, it’s really difficult because of his length, his quickness, his athleticism and strength. He just overpowers people.”
Now the Nets must focus on the second-place Raptors on Wednesday night at Barclays Center. It should be another pressure-packed contest.
“You can’t put any pressure on yourself,” LeVert said. “These games are fun. This is what we work for all year, for these moments right here. So it’s super-fun for us, especially because we control our own destiny.”