ATLANTA — It might be early to say the Nets’ season is on the brink of collapse, but they definitely are on the brink of falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff race after a miserable defensive performance in a 141-118 loss to the lowly Hawks on Friday night at State Farm Arena.
It was the third straight loss for the 26-32 Nets, who fell to the eighth and last playoff spot, half a game behind the Magic, who won over the Timberwolves. The Nets were abominable on defense against a team they had beaten three times this season, leading them by 39 in a 22-point win in January. The 108 points they gave up through three quarters and the 141 for the game both were season-worsts.
They pulled within six points early in the final period, but the Hawks put together a 12-2 surge for a 120-104 lead, and it was lights out for the Nets, who missed all eight of their field-goal attempts and committed one turnover during that span.
Until the past three games, the Nets had been solid defensively. “That’s our identity,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “We’re seventh in the league in defense, and tonight, we looked like 800th in defense. We lost our defensive identity. It’s one game. I’m not going to start changing things or go crazy.”
The Nets had no answer on defense for center John Collins, who led the Hawks (18-43) with 33 points and 13 rebounds, and they also got 26 points from Cam Reddish and 22 points and 14 assists from point guard Trae Young. The Hawks shot a torrid 48.7 percent from three-point range (19-for-39) and outrebounded the Nets, 52-38.
Spencer Dinwiddie topped the Nets with 24 points and 13 assists, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris each had 18 points and Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple 16 each. But the Nets’ 13 turnovers led to 22 easy Hawks points.
“The guys we wanted to take shots made a few, but early on, John got a lot of rolls and dunks,” Temple said. “We weren’t as far in as we should have been on some people, so they got whatever they wanted. Sometimes we did shift off of people and they got threes, and sometimes we didn’t and John got dunks. I think they just didn’t feel us tonight.”
The Nets led by 13 points in the first quarter but ultimately wound up trading baskets and falling behind at halftime 68-62. Atkinson said he made halftime adjustments, but the Nets proceeded to allow 40 third-quarter points to trail 108-98 at the end of the period.
“Our guys have been great defensively all year,” Atkinson said. “Not good, great. Sure, we made some adjustments and they came out and started hitting shots again. When they started hitting shots, we mixed in some zone, some box-and-one. Nothing worked. We threw the kitchen sink at them. We tried our basic, went to other options, and they hit against everything.”
Asked how the Nets can regain their edge, Dinwiddie said: “Get back to the commitment on defense. One of our hallmarks even during our bad seasons was our scrappiness, our toughness, playing hard all the time. You want to have that type of mentality, you want to defend at a high level, and that gives you a chance to win every game.”
The Nets will try to rebound Saturday night in Miami, but they understand their situation is dire. “If you don’t feel embarrassed after losing to a team we beat three times … they came out and embarrassed us tonight,” Temple said. “Orlando passed us tonight, so if we don’t have that edge for the next 24 games, we’re in the wrong sport. This is a wake-up call for us.”