The first game without Caris LeVert for possibly as much as the next three months was a grim reminder of the task the Nets face for as long as they are without their best player and catalyst. They fell into a deep hole early and stayed there on the way to a 120-107 loss to the Heat Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
Besides LeVert, the Nets also were missing starting center Jarrett Allen (illness), and it showed as the Heat (6-8) dominated paint points, 70-58, and shot 54.1 percent from the field while forcing the Nets (6-9), who lost their third straight, into a 28.6 percent effort from three-point range. Spencer Dinwiddie led six Nets in double figures with 18 points, while Tyler Johnson topped a balanced Heat attack with 24 points.
The Nets gave up 37 first-quarter points and never got closer than seven the rest of the way. Coach Kenny Atkinson blamed a poor defensive effort but admitted the Nets have a huge void to fill without LeVert, who was a dominant ballhandler and top defender.
“It’s a big void,” Atkinson said. “It’s both ends. He and D’Angelo [Russell] were sharing it so well and they had good chemistry. We’re going to have to look at what fits best with each lineup. We started Allen [Crabbe] tonight, but going forward, we have to look. Do we want more ballhandlers in the lineup? Do we want more shooters? The returns tonight weren’t great, so we’re going to have to figure out the lineup.”
The Nets were coming of a four-game trip and had no chance to practice without LeVert before facing the Heat. Joe Harris admitted they might have experienced an emotional hangover after losing LeVert.
“The significance of how the injury happened, him being really the heart and soul of our team to this point, our go-to scorer,” Harris said. “We miss the energy and enthusiasm he brings. That’s a void that we miss a lot.”
Russell thrived when paired with LeVert, but now, all the ball-handling load falls on him. He had a tough night against the Heat, scoring 12 points on 6-for-18 shooting and committing three turnovers.
Asked if he faces the biggest adjustment of anyone, Russell said, “I’ve played  minutes without him. It’s going to take a little bit of time to figure out what we’re going to do. But as of right now, I don’t know, so I’m not really going to speak on what we can do. We’ve just got to figure it out.”
The Nets have 67 more games to do that, but looking beyond their immediate circumstances to the bigger picture, the Nets took some comfort when LeVert joined them on the team plane for the flight home Monday night from Minneapolis. That came as a shock after seeing LeVert’s right foot splayed at an odd angle after his injury at the end of the first half.
“When they put his ankle back in place and he flew on the plane, I think everyone knew that was a good sign,” veteran forward Ed Davis said. “When it came out [Tuesday] that he wasn’t having surgery, that was a great sign.
“I want him to play this year and finish it out because I definitely think we can make a playoff push, but for his career, if he had been out for a year, that’s a tough, tough, tough injury to come back from . . . So, I’m just really happy for him that he can rehab and get back whenever he’s right.”
Even though LeVert will be missed, his teammates are counting their lucky stars it wasn’t worse.
“I think it was a lot tougher on us just because it was Vert,” Davis said. “He’s just a special person.”