Here’s the latest sign of progress by the Nets this season: They blew a game they absolutely should have won. Never mind that the Nets have by far the worst record in the NBA. They had won three of their previous four games and were 7-8 in March with a golden opportunity to reach .500 for the month against an injury-depleted Philadelphia team that had only nine healthy players and basically relied on a seven-man rotation.
The Nets took a six-point lead late in the third period, but they failed to step on the 76ers’ throats. After taking a one-point lead on a three-pointer by Isaiah Whitehead with 2:30 left to play, the Nets failed to score the rest of the way in a 106-101 loss to Philadelphia Tuesday night at Barclays Center.
The fourth quarter turned into a wild affair after the Nets tied the game at 86 on a Justin Hamilton layup with 9:11 to go. From there, the lead changed hands 10 times, the last with 1:02 left when Robert Covington scored on a putback for a 102-101 76ers lead. That was the start of a 6-0 finishing burst by the visitors as the Nets botched their final four possessions.
“I don’t think it’s on those last possessions, honestly,” said Brook Lopez, who had an outstanding game with 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “We didn’t handle the game the way we should have. They were able to hang around and have their way, and that’s how the game goes when you play like that . . . I’m disappointed in ourselves.”
Beyond Lopez, many Nets had poor shooting nights that appeared to be a sign of fatigue for a team playing its 16th game in a span of 28 days. Jeremy Lin had 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds but made four of 14 shots. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 11 points but on 5-for-15 shooting. The Nets (16-58) shot only 28.1 percent from three-point range (9 of 32) and made just 16 of 24 foul shots.
The 766ers (28-46), who had five players log at least 32 minutes, got 23 points from Dario Saric, 21 points and 13 rebounds from Covington and 17 points and nine rebounds from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Joel Embiid has been out with a long-term injury, but they also were missing Sergio Rodriguez, Jahlil Okafor, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson, a group with a combined scoring average of 60.4 points.
“I just felt like we relaxed a bit after winning three of four, and it’s a valuable lesson for us,” Lin said. “I’ll be the first person to say I didn’t play nearly close to what I’m capable of, so, I have to live with that tonight and just get better for the next one. I definitely feel that, if I had just played better, hit some more shots, we wouldn’t be in this position.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson wondered if fatigue played a role, saying, “We didn’t have the juice from the beginning. It was an uphill battle all game.”
At the same time, Atkinson said his team couldn’t use fatigue as an excuse, and if anything, the Nets were counting on the 76ers running out of gas because they were so short-handed. The Nets appeared ready to take charge after gaining a 78-72 lead near the end of the third quarter, but Philadelphia responded with a 14-2 run for an 86-80 lead early in the fourth.
Asked if that’s where the game was lost, Atkinson said, “Yes. I thought we were playing well, and we couldn’t push it over six. We couldn’t all night get over that hump . . . I thought with our roster and playing a bunch of guys [riddled with injuries] we could eventually wear them out but that wasn’t the case.”