CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The idea was for the Nets to take advantage of the All-Star break for rest, relaxation and regrouping. But none of it made a difference when their fourth-quarter defense collapsed under pressure from Hornets point guard Kemba Walker.
The Nets couldn’t contain Walker, who scored 14 fourth-quarter points as the Hornets turned a close game into a 111-96 blowout Thursday night at Spectrum Center. The loss was the eighth straight for the Nets and their 12th in 13 games. As a result, they remained 0-for-February.
Early in the final period, the Nets cut a 13-point third-quarter deficit to 80-77, but Walker scored 12 points in a 25-13 Hornets run to build a 105-90 lead. Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie won the All-Star Skills Challenge, but he was on his heels when Walker got it going in the final period.
“Kemba Walker had a run, and that’s where the separation came,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “We relaxed on a few pick-and-rolls, he hit a three and then he came off [a screen] naked for a pull-up.”
As he suggested he might, Atkinson changed his starting lineup, inserting D’Angelo Russell at shooting guard to play alongside point guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Asked how that pairing fared, Atkinson said, “I thought Spencer struggled tonight on both ends. I’m sure he was running around at the All-Star Game, and he had all the travel. That’s not an excuse for him, but I thought he was a little off his game tonight, so we need him to get back. But those two can play together fine. I don’t see any problems there. They both play well off each other. That’s not going to be an issue at all.”
Backup forward Dante Cunningham provided one bright spot for the Nets (19-41) with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and they got 19 points from Russell and 12 points and nine assists from Dinwiddie. But the Nets shot 14-for-43 from three-point range (32.6 percent) and were outrebounded 54-41.
Walker had 31 points and seven assists for the Hornets (25-33), who got 15 points and 24 rebounds from Dwight Howard.
Starting near the end of the period, Cunningham scored 11 of 13 Nets points, including his fourth three-pointer of the game, to pull them within 80-77 early in the final period. But after Cunningham’s layup kept the margin at 83-79, the Hornets took off.
Said Dinwiddie, “I’ve got to do a better job on Kemba to give our team a chance to win. I’m not in the business of making excuses. Kemba made shots. He made plays for his team. I just have to do better.”
Asked if he might have been fatigued from All-Star Weekend, he said, “It was a blessing to be able to go there and be able to do what I was able to do. I still have to be able to bring it 100 percent with my unit, with our job day in and day out. No, there’s no downside to All-Star Weekend.”
If anything, Atkinson suggested the next step on Dinwiddie’s career arc is to prove he can play both ends.
“This is the challenge for Spencer,” Atkinson said. “[Point guard] is the toughest position right now in the NBA to guard, and every night, you have a heck of a challenge. If you’re not on your ‘A’ game, it’s not easy. Again, Kemba is a heck of a player, and he’s been doing it for years now. He’s an All-Star. That’s where our growth has to come.”