The Nets finally found a much-needed offensive spark off the bench as second-round rookie Rodions Kurucs played the final 14 minutes and helped generate a comeback from 13 points down to tie the Cavaliers in the final minute.
But the Nets suffered their seventh straight loss when Alec Burks made a great move for the game-winning dunk with 3.2 seconds remaining in the Cavs’ 99-97 victory Monday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets managed to cut a 13-point third-quarter deficit to two early in the final period, but an 11-2 run gave the Cavs a 91-80 lead.
The scenario was eerily similar to the Nets’ previous loss Saturday in Washington, where they had trouble generating an effective offensive attack.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson inserted Kurucs with two minutes left in the third period and left him in the rest of the way. Kurucs and Spencer Dinwiddie scored all of the points in a 13-4 run, capped by Dinwiddie’s three-pointer with 1:34 left, that cut the Cavs’ lead to 95-93.
The Nets tied it at 97-97 with 18.9 seconds left when Kurucs hit a putback after crashing inside to get the rebound of D’Angelo Russell’s missed three-pointer. But Burks got past Dinwiddie with a behind-the-back dribble drive for a dunk and a 99-97 lead with 3.2 seconds showing.
Atkinson drew up a play on which Allen Crabbe got the ball on the right wing, but his three-point attempt fell woefully short.
Describing how the Nets dug such a deep hole, Atkinson said: “First of all, it’s poor shooting. We missed a ton of shots and that can take you throughout the game. Excellent defense in the second half, but we couldn’t overcome our shooting. We made a valiant comeback. Rodions was a main part of that. So we’ll take the positive.”
Russell topped the Nets (8-17) with 30 points and added eight rebounds and six assists, but it was as if he had to be a one-man band until Kurucs got into the game.
Dinwiddie added 18 points and Kurucs had 12 on 6-for-10 shooting in 14 minutes. But the Nets shot only 39.4 percent from the field, including 25 percent from three-point range.
Jordan Clarkson led the Cavs (5-18) with 20 points and 11 rebounds, Tristan Thompson totaled 19 points and 14 rebounds and Collin Sexton had 15 points.
The Cavaliers mounted a 12-4 run midway through the third quarter to build their biggest lead at 76-63. Russell then took over, scoring the first seven points in a 13-4 run to end the third period. That cut the Cavs’ lead to 80-76 and kept the Nets in the game until Kurucs and Dinwiddie sparked the comeback.
Asked about the impact the rookie made, Russell said: “Energy. He can help us. Can shoot it, plays hard, he gets the job done. He does really well when he gets that small sample minute. You can’t blame him for his energy and effort. He has a long way to go, but he’s definitely ready.”
Atkinson said Kurucs might have played his way into the rotation.
“He’s got extreme energy,” Atkinson said. “He turned the game and got us back into it. He’s in the conversation, you can’t deny it. Guys have to compete for minutes, but he’s definitely earning some more playing time.”
That’s music to Kurucs’ ears.
“It felt great,” he said. “That was like kind of a dream for a little kid who comes from Latvia from a little town. It would be cool if we would win. I would enjoy it more, but it felt great. I enjoyed it.”