Brooklyn Nets' Shabazz Napier drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Malcolm Brogdon...

Brooklyn Nets' Shabazz Napier drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Malcolm Brogdon during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Credit: AP/Morry Gash

MILWAUKEE — If someone had told the Nets they would have a 17-21 record at the end of 2018 despite losing emerging star Caris LeVert on Nov. 12 with a dislocated ankle, they most assuredly would have signed up for such clear signs of progress.

But after winning nine of 10 games to improve to 17-19 before heading out on a road back-to-back, they suffered their second straight loss by a crushing 129-115 to the Bucks. Milwaukee got 24 points from all-time Nets scoring leader Brook Lopez, who made 7 of 15 three-pointers.

The Nets did cut a 26-point third-quarter deficit to seven on a basket by Shabazz Napier with 4:51 left, but it wasn’t the bubbly ending to the old year that they hoped to produce. Still, coach Kenny Atkinson took some solace from the comeback.

“That’s the spirit of our group,” he said. “I told them that in the locker room. It’s kind of known throughout the league that we are a team that doesn’t quit. I’m proud of that.”

The Nets were playing their third game in four nights and were on a short turnaround, facing a 5 p.m. ET start after a loss Friday night in Charlotte.

Allen Crabbe (sore knee) sat out his ninth straight game, knowing it would afford him three more days off before the Nets’ next game Wednesday at Barclays Center, and the Nets rested D’Angelo Russell, coming off his 33-point performance against the Hornets, and leading rebounder Ed Davis.

The manpower shortage became more acute when starting forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson suffered a right adductor strain three minutes into the game.

Hollis-Jefferson said this groin injury is less severe than the one he suffered Aug. 4 in China that lasted two months, and it’s on the right side rather than the left side he originally injured.

“It’s a little sore,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “But we’ll check and see how it feels [Sunday] .  .  . I just wanted to be cautious and talk to our training staff.”

The circumstances gave Atkinson a chance to work vets Napier and Kenneth Faried into the rotation and give two-way player Theo Pinson a chance for his NBA debut. Napier came off the bench to score a season-high 32 points and add seven assists, and the Nets got 21 points and 10 rebounds from Faried, 18 points from DeMarre Carroll and 15 from Joe Harris. The Bucks (25-10), who have the NBA’s best record, were led by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and Khris Middleton’s 29 points.

“Shabazz got us back in the game [Friday in Charlotte], and tonight, he was good again,” Atkinson said. “I thought Kenneth .  .  .   gives us a rim-roller, pretty good defense, rebounds the ball. I thought it was a pretty good performance considering how long he’s been without playing.”

Napier scored 11 fourth-quarter points, but Antetokounmpo returned just before the Bucks’ lead dropped to seven, and he made four straight shots to put it away.

Discussing the importance of the Nets’ comeback, Napier said: “For all my life, I’ve always wanted to compete. I’ve always understood that pride takes over for myself. I never allow my opponent to outlast me whether I win or lose. Today, we did a great job of that. Other than us taking a loss with the numbers we were down, I thought we did a hell of a job.”

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