Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said one of the best things about playing the NBA champion Cavaliers would be the chance to learn from them. What the Nets learned is they need to put together a cast of superstars if they ever hope to contend for a title again.
It was hard enough for the Nets to try to contain LeBron James, who went off for 36 points. But when Kyrie Irving added 32, including 16 in the fourth quarter after the Nets pulled within six, Cleveland pulled away to a 116-108 victory Friday night at Barclays Center.
If there is hope for the future, however, it was the performance of Nets rookie Caris LeVert. Trailing by 24 points late in the third quarter, the Nets made an improbable 25-7 run to cut the Cavs’ lead to 86-80 early in the fourth. LeVert, who often was matched against James on defense, was in the thick of it with eight points in that span.
“We’ve got a competitive group of guys,” Atkinson said. “I’m proud of the way we fought in the fourth quarter . . . You get worried when you have a defensive performance like we had [Thursday at Indiana]. I said before the game I wanted to see how we bounced back defensively. I thought we improved there.
“Caris and Isaiah [Whitehead] coming in and playing real ly important minutes against the world champions is really positive. We don’t back down, especially at home.”
With James on the bench at the start of the final period, Irving stepped up to score 12 points in a 12-2 Cleveland surge to a 98-82 lead. The Nets cut it to 113-106 on a layup by Trevor Booker with 1:13 left, but the Cavs would not be denied.
“Obviously, they’ve got two excellent [isolation] players in Irving and LeBron James,” Atkinson said. “It’s pick your poison. Irving had a couple of pick-and-roll threes that were tough shots.”
Bojan Bogdanovic led the Nets (8-27) with 23 points. Le Vert had a career-high 19, Brook Lopez scored 17, Booker had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and Whitehead added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Cavs (27-8) got 17 points and 13 rebounds from third star Kevin Love. Cleveland was 31-for-43 at the foul line despite nine misses by Tristan Thompson. The Nets got to the line only 19 times, hitting 17.
Asked about the free-throw disparity, Atkinson, who was hit with a technical foul in the first half, declined to fault the officiating crew. “Part of our defensive philosophy is keeping the other team off the free-throw line,” he said. “We did not do a good job of that. That statistic really hurt us.”
It was the second time this season that the Nets ran into the Cavaliers on the second night of a back-to-back set. At one point in their Dec. 23 loss in Cleveland, they trailed by 46 points. So their 24-point deficit at Barclays represented improvement.
Still, they had no answer for Irving’s 12-point scoring spree at crunch time. Whitehead, who came off the bench after being replaced as the starting point guard by Spencer Dinwiddie, paid tribute to his fellow New Jersey native.
“I knew Kyrie since I was young,” Whitehead said. “He’s a big-time player, and he hit big-time shots tonight. I looked up to him as a kid.”
It will be a while before the Nets have players of that caliber, but James was impressed with their progress. “They’ve got some really good young pieces,” he said. “All of them are trying to develop. Brook’s still putting up great numbers every night. They gave us a good test.”