The Nets had a chance to complete their steady ascension toward the top of the Eastern Conference when the first-place 76ers suffered a surprising loss to the lowly Cavaliers. But they remained a half-game back in second place when their defense broke down and their eight-game winning streak was halted by the Mavericks, 115-98, Saturday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets were playing without injured Kevin Durant (strained hamstring), Kyrie Irving, who was rested, and Tyler Johnson (migraine). But they hadn’t had a full roster in most games during the winning streak and had overcome it with solid defense. Not this time.
"In the first half [the Mavericks got] 20 points off turnovers, and in the second half, it felt like we ran out of gas and didn’t have answers at either end," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "It’s tough. We were missing some guys and Tyler unfortunately had a terrible migraine. It just made us shorter and shorter off the bench, less options, less cohesion, less continuity, and Dallas played well . . . We just didn’t have it tonight."
The Nets (22-13) cut a 15-point third-quarter deficit to 10 early in the fourth period, but the Mavericks responded with a 12-0 run that pushed their lead to 106-84.
The Nets got 29 points from James Harden, but only four of those came in the second half, and their only other scorers in double figures were Jeff Green and Bruce Brown (12 each).
It figured the Nets would have their hands full with a high-powered Mavericks offense led by point guard Luka Doncic, an All-Star starter who had 27 points and seven assists, and Kristaps Porzingis (18 points). The Mavericks (16-16) dominated points off turnovers (32-6), forcing 19 by the Nets. They also had big advantages in fast-break points (15-4), paint points (50-36) and bench points (41-30).
The first half literally was a game of runs. The Mavericks had an early 14-2 run for an 11-point lead before the Nets responded with a 14-3 burst, including 12 from Harden, to tie the score at 24. Then the Mavericks put together a 16-2 run to go up 14 early in the second period before the Nets came back with a 19-9 surge, including nine points from Landry Shamet, to cut their deficit to 49-45.
By halftime, the Mavs were clinging to a 68-64 lead but hadn’t really been challenged on defense.
"We fought in that first half," Harden said. "We were down double-digits, fought and cut it to four points at halftime. That second half, we just didn’t have any legs on our entire team after losing a couple players. It was legs.
"Every time we made a run, they countered it and made a run. Credit to them. We just didn’t have it. Throughout the course of a year, there’s going to be games like that. We just chalk it up, prepare and get ready for San Antonio."
The trend continued in the third quarter when the Mavericks fashioned a 17-4 run that pushed their lead to 91-76. It was fueled by four more Nets turnovers. The Nets got back within 10 points early in the fourth, but then the Mavs landed their 12-0 knockout punch for their 22-point lead.
"I had six turnovers," Harden said of the ballhandling problems. "A lot of them were careless, a lot of them were just not good plays, trying to thread the needle. You give an offensive team like that an opportunity and they did a great job of capitalizing.
"We’ve just got to be better. I’ve got to be better individually in securing the basketball, and we will be better . . . Sometimes you have bad games. So chalk it up and be better next game."