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Nets get James Harden back, but must address defensive woes

Head coach Steve Nash of the Nets reacts

Head coach Steve Nash of the Nets reacts during the third quarter against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Coming off a disastrous 149-146 loss to the NBA-worst Wizards in which they blew a five-point lead in the final 8.1 seconds, the Nets tried to seek redemption against the NBA-best Clippers Tuesday night at Barclays Center. It figured to be a monumental task for a team that allowed an average of 134.0 points in its previous three games and gave up at least 120 points in seven of the previous nine.

If there was a saving grace for the Nets, it is that James Harden rejoined Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the lineup after a one-game absence to rest a bruised thigh, and they tend to play better against teams with winning records and let down defensively against inferior teams.

Even after eventually blowing an 18-point first-quarter lead against the Wizards, the Nets generally were in control until the final seconds. "We just allowed them to hang around and gave them some confidence," Nets coach Steve Nash said of the Wizards. "They scored 149, and they missed a bunch of threes they are very capable of making, so it could have been worse. I think we just let our foot off the gas and thought we were going to win, and that’s a dangerous game to play.

"Maybe we thought we had it in the bag, but too many times we let them waltz down the lane and get layups. Our level dropped and we let too many guys get to the rim to the tune of 72 points in the paint, and that is one way to lose a game for sure."

Hard to imagine how it could have been worse. The Wizards outscored the Nets in the paint 72-34. That revealed the size deficiency the Nets have in the frontcourt since the trade for Harden sent away much of their interior defensive presence. But even before the trade, the Nets showed a propensity to play down to the level of their competition rather than playing enough defense to put teams away.

"I can’t speak for everybody in the group, but I can say that down the stretch, that’s where we’ve really got to make our mark and we usually do," Irving said. "Stuff happens, and we’ve got to take this one on the chin. It’s no one’s fault. If anything, we individually take our own efforts where we can be better and move forward."

Durant declined to respond directly to a question about the Nets’ lack of size and rim presence in the frontcourt. "It starts with one-on-one defense, you versus your man," Durant said. "We’ll look at it with that, and then, we’ll get help if we need it on the back end. We’ll be better at it . . . When their second unit came in, they gave them an extra spark. But we had the game under control, I felt, the whole night until the end."

Obviously, the Nets had two plays at the end that cost them dearly. After a deep three-pointer by Bradley Beal cut the Nets’ lead to two points, Joe Harris threw away an inbounds pass because of miscommunication with Durant that led to a go-ahead three by Russell Westbrook. Then, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot missed a point-blank layup that would have won the game. But it never should have come to that.

Speaking of the Harris turnover, Nash said, "It was just an error and it happens, but when you give up 149 points, that’s one error in about 50 defensive lapses. We were not good enough defensively. We could look at the missed layup or the turnover for the three, but we shouldn’t have been in that position. We had a big lead early, we let them stay around . . . and we gave them a chance and gave them life."

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