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Nets know they need to be smarter in crunch time, hope to learn from late-game collapses

D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets controls

D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets controls the ball against Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

In the immediate aftermath of the Nets blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in a 114-112 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday night at Barclays Center, Jared Dudley essentially implored his teammates to look in the mirror and ask themselves how to correct the late-game collapses that have resulted in an NBA-high eight blown double-digit leads. He blamed it on a recurring pattern of mental errors.

“We’re losing in very similar ways — not playing smart basketball,” Dudley said, citing a litany of turnovers, poor shot selection, failure to rebound, fouling and failure to manage the shot clock.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson tried to keep it positive after Thursday’s practice, emphasizing the crushing losses as part of the learning curve for a relatively inexperienced team. “We have a 22-year-old point guard, we have a 20-year-old center and you’re playing against experienced teams,” Atkinson said, referring to D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen. “I don’t think it’s a question of IQ. I think it’s more of a question of just having more experience.”

Still, there was no denying three major mental errors in the final seconds when the Nets were clinging to a one-point lead and had the ball. Rather than run the shot clock down, Russell missed a three-pointer with about eight seconds left on the shot clock and 10.8 seconds on the game clock.

Declining to explain his thinking, Russell simply said, “I’ve got to be better.”

Atkinson spoke to Russell about it. “Something he has to learn from,” Atkinson said. “All our team’s got to learn from. I addressed it and talked about it. I think they addressed it amongst themselves, too, which is a good thing.”

The Thunder called timeout with 8.1 seconds left to set up a play that resulted in an inbounds pass to Russell Westbrook, who was double-teamed by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie. Paul George, who scored 25 of his 47 points in a fourth-quarter explosion, was wide open near the top of the arc, and Westbrook found him. Dinwiddie rushed at him, but George let him fly past and drained the game-winner.

Atkinson acknowledged that Dinwiddie was supposed to cover George, but he added, “Those are tricky because it’s what we call a ‘slip.’ It’s one of the most difficult plays in the NBA to guard.”

That left 3.1 seconds for the Nets to set up a play, but Allen Crabbe’s pass to Dudley, who was the second option, was poked out of bounds by the Thunder with one-tenth of a second left, effectively ending the Nets’ chances. “That’s on me,” Atkinson said. “We’ve got to do a better job.”

Ultimately, Atkinson blamed defensive breakdowns for giving up 39 fourth-quarter points. But Dudley said the Nets stopped moving the ball on offense and relied on isolation plays in the fourth quarter when the Thunder, the NBA’s most efficient defensive team, started switching defenders on every screen.

“We don’t have a star player, so the ball should never just be iso, pick-and-roll every single time, because we’re not good enough to do that,” Dudley said.

“There’s merit to it,” Atkinson said. “I thought we did a better job than previous games of moving it, personally. But we can’t just line guys up and play them one-on-one all the time.”

Russell agreed that the Nets must keep the ball moving in late-game situations, but like his coach, he focused on what they are doing well. “They were all winnable games,” he said. “Just an immature mistake at the end that cost the game. But I feel like we’re in those games and we’re losing, so it seems way bigger than what it is . . . It goes unnoticed how well we played the whole game. It’s definitely a positive we can lean on.”

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