It’s been a very long time since the Nets have been in this situation: scoreboard- watching, meaningful games in March, and the thrill of knowing that every play could bring them one step closer to the playoffs.
They as much as anyone know it’s a privileged position. And they as much as anyone know that if they keep going the way they’re going, it soon could disappear.
In sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 18 games left in the season, the Nets on Friday looked like a team trying to break ground without a shovel. The result: an often messy, ultimately futile endeavor against a Hornets team that came into the game struggling but left with a new life.
Instead of bouncing back after a 19-point loss to the Wizards, the Nets tacked a “to be continued” on that game, losing to the Hornets, 123-112. The Nets gave up 68 points in the first half of each game.
“We have to find some solutions,” Kenny Atkinson said. “We’re out of sync right now and it’s up to us to figure out what that looks like. Two games in a row, we’re not sharp, shot selection is not great, ball movement not great.”
The Hornets broke a three-game losing streak, leaped back into eighth place and won the season series against the Nets.
“The other teams are very urgent,” Atkinson said. “Obviously, Charlotte’s come [in as] this is a must-win game. We should look at it the same way . . . This time of year, teams really start to make a push. They’ve raised their level and we haven’t raised our level. Our level has stayed the same or below what it was — probably below.”
Kemba Walker led the Hornets with 25 points and seven assists. D’Angelo Russell had 22 points and nine assists to lead the Nets.
The loss negated a frenzied effort at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, when the Nets whittled a 21-point deficit to nine with 8:49 left.
“We can’t dig ourselves in holes and teams shoot well and expect to get out of it by us scoring,” Russell said. “We have to get stops.”
What’s more, the Nets faded when they should have been their strongest. The team was whole for the first time since the first game of the 2017-18 season. The return of Spencer Dinwiddie (15 points in 23 minutes) from thumb surgery meant Atkinson had a full roster at his disposal. That hasn’t been the case since Jeremy Lin’s injury back in the dark ages of October 2017.
Still, the Nets at times seemed overmatched by their new reality. Instead of a playoff-caliber game in front of a robust crowd of 15,578, for the better part of three quarters, they performed like the Nets of old, taking small leads in the first quarter before disassembling in the second and all but disappearing defensively.
The Hornets’ 15-3 run opened a 54-44 lead with 5:10 left in the first half, and they led by 18 at the break. The Nets turned the ball over 11 times in that quarter for 15 points.
If there was a bright spot then, it was that Dinwiddie didn’t seem to suffer too much from his long hiatus, dating to Jan. 23. DeMarre Carroll scored 11 of his 20 points off the bench in the first quarter.
The Nets went down 21 in the third but drew to within 98-86 to end that quarter, helped along by a 7-0 run to end the frame. They got as close as 104-95 with 8:49 to go.
“We want to be an 82-0 type team, we want to be a championship team,” Dinwiddie said. “But these last couple losses, these last couple games aren’t indicative of that.”