Slightly more than a quarter into the season, the Nets have developed a clear trend. They are 16-7 overall, which puts them first in the Eastern Conference by a half-game, but when you break it down, they are 6-7 against teams with winning records and 10-0 against teams with losing records.
That would appear to cast some doubt on their status as NBA title contenders. Their seven losses include one to defending champion Milwaukee, one each to Golden State and Phoenix, which are tied for first in the Western Conference, one each to East contenders Miami and Charlotte and two losses to Chicago, which is second in the East after beating the Nets Saturday night at Barclays Center after trailing by 11 points in the third quarter.
"We were up , and we didn’t push the lead up like we should have," said Kevin Durant, who had 28 points and 10 rebounds. "We let them stay in the game, and we were supposed to just bury them."
Durant paid respect to Bulls stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, who totaled 60 points on 22-for-44 shooting. "LaVine and DeRozan made something out of nothing," Durant said. "They made shots, and we didn’t capitalize on having the lead."
Durant had a solid game, shooting 12-for-26, but fellow superstar James Harden struggled, scoring 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting.
Nearly all the other stats said the Nets should have dominated. They took 25 more field-goal attempts than the Bulls, outscored them in the paint 54-38, outscored them on second-chance points 23-4, outrebounded them 55-47, and committed only seven turnovers. But the Bulls shot 47.7% to 41.4% for the Nets and they went 19-for-27 at the foul line compared to only 7 of 9 for the Nets.
In the end, Harden blamed himself for missing too many shots around the rim, but he had plenty of company in that regard from his teammates. "I just missed layups," Harden said. "Throughout the course of the game there were opportunities for me to go finish, I just didn’t convert at a high level that I needed to . . . and I feel like that was the reason for the loss."
Asked if the Nets still are learning how to play against the top-tier teams, Durant said, "We’ve just got to go out there and play with some force and confidence like we want to win. Understand it’s a long game and stick with the game plan. It’s a bad, tough loss . . . We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. They did. They made tough shots all night and we didn’t."
Next up for the Nets is an extended four-game trip to Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Detroit, two winning teams and two losing teams. Tuesday night’s game against the Mavericks with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis should be an especially stern test.
"To go on the road to Dallas and a back-to-back with Houston is a really good challenge for us," Harden said. "Every game is going to be a different challenge. It’s going to be good for us. All these games are building our character and building our togetherness as a collective group."