MIAMI — The Nets’ optimism could not have been higher when they reached the All-Star break a game above .500 and had four players take part in the weekend festivities. But even though they are fully healthy for the first time all season, they have seemed dazed and confused while searching to regain their identity.
For the third straight game, they lost to a team below them in the Eastern Conference standings, and it wasn’t even close. The Nets trailed by as many as 31 points in a 117-88 loss to the Heat on Saturday night at American Airlines Arena.
They fell to 32-33 and into a sixth-place tie with the Pistons, just 1 ½ games ahead of the eighth-place Magic.
“Tonight, we were searching for everything — offense, defense, rebounding,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Miami was unbelievable. They dominated us in every fashion. We obviously didn’t make shots. Somehow we’ve got to get over the fact that, when we’re not making shots, we’ve got to come back and defend. We didn’t do either. Didn’t make shots, didn’t defend.”
Only four Nets managed to score in double figures — Joe Harris had 15 points, Rodions Kurucs 11 and Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell 10 each — but Russell was scoreless in the second half. Harris had four turnovers and finished minus-27 for the game.
The Nets shot 35.2 percent from the field, made only 9 of 42 three-pointers (21.4 percent) and were outrebounded 56-36.
Kelly Olynyk led the 10th-place Heat (28-33) with 25 points. Derrick Jones Jr. added 18 and Rodney McGruder had 17. Miami shot 49.4 percent from the field and had 36 assists. Bam Adebayo had 16 rebounds compared to 13 by the entire Nets starting lineup.
Before the game, Atkinson said the Nets should be able to turn it on because they have players who have been part of the program and should know what to do. But it was a struggle from the start.
They trailed by 10 at halftime and saw that deficit quickly expand to 23 when Jones scored the final seven points in a 12-2 run for a 79-56 lead near the end of the third quarter.
“A lot of guys are struggling right now shooting the ball,” Atkinson said. “We keep trying different guys, different lineups. I think we tried every lineup possible tonight to get it going. It’s just not working right now. Our runway is pretty short, so we have to figure it out pretty soon.”
One reason the Nets struggled on offense was because the Heat did a good job of trapping and denying to get the ball out of the hands of primary playmakers Russell and Dinwiddie to force others to make plays. Dinwiddie had a 2-for-12 shooting night in his second game back from injury and Russell was limited to eight shot attempts.
“They’re not really trapping me, but they’re just denying,” Russell said. “We are having guys come back from injury, and other teams are seeing that and forcing those players to make plays.
“We need to get our identity back . . . When you’ve got a lot of dominant guys out there, everybody has to sacrifice.”
For the Nets to regain their identity, Caris LeVert said it has to start on defense. “The offense has kind of taken a step back for sure, but I think you can control the defense more than you can control offense,” he said. “That’s something the coaches are preaching.”