Considering the Bucks came in with the NBA’s best record and the Nets were the eighth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, their matchup Saturday night at Barclays Center qualified as a potential first-round playoff preview.
Unfortunately for the Nets, it was about as lopsided as the current 18 ½-game difference between them in the conference standings as the Bucks scored a dominating 117-97 victory.
The Nets trailed by 15 at halftime and never got closer in the non-competitive second half. It was the 10th loss in the past 12 games for the Nets, who reached the halfway point of their season with an 18-23 mark compared to the Bucks’ 38-6 ledger.
The Nets’ offense was horribly inefficient as they shot 33.3 percent overall and 30.6 from three (15 of 49). The Bucks were topped by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 29 points and had 12 rebounds in just 25 minutes. They also got 20 points from All-Star Khris Middleton and 12 points plus seven rebounds from former Nets star Brook Lopez.
“I thought our defense was actually decent,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Obviously, we didn’t make shots. They’re the No. 1 rim-protection team in the league. Yes, we attacked the rim, but we also have to figure out how to maybe just make that extra pass, those extra two passes. I thought they were going against a wall, especially in the first half.
“We knew we were going to get threes. They didn’t go down, and that makes it look worse.”
Irving led the Nets with 17 points and had six rebounds and six assists, and rookie Nic Claxton added 14 points off the bench in place of injured backup center DeAndre Jordan. But the Nets’ primary scorers all shot poorly, including Irving (6 of 15), Taurean Prince (13 points, 4 of 15), Spencer Dinwiddie (11 points, 3 of 12) and Caris LeVert (6 points, 3 of 13).
“We have to do a better job of making those shots,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s more reading situations, reading who’s at the rim, who can we kick out to, can we make that extra pass? When you go against the elite defensive teams, you have to make the correct decisions. Maybe we were attacking the rim too much. We’ve got good shooters. It’s a credit to them and not a great shooting night for us.”
In addition to Jordan (dislocated right middle finger), the Nets also were without Joe Harris (lower back soreness) and Garrett Temple (right knee contusion). Atkinson expressed hope Harris and Temple will return in Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matinee against the 76ers.
In the early going, the Nets were trailing by just a point with three minutes left in the first quarter. But the Bucks’ went on a 16-2 run, including six points from Antetokounmpo, as they built a 39-24 cushion early in the second quarter. In the second half, they trailed by as many as 25 points and never threatened.
Asked if he feels a certain amount of frustration about returning to the lineup only to see the Nets’ chance to build continuity hurt by the proliferation of more injuries, Irving said, “I think it’s all for a bigger purpose honestly. I think these tests are warranted. Things happen in the middle of the season, guys go down, things are unforeseeable, but you’ve got to battle through. I don’t think anyone in the league is going to feel bad for us or anything like that. We’ve just got to continue to find ways to really galvanize each other and move forward.
“We’re still trying to establish what that continuity and consistency looks like for us. We’ll continue to battle, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”