DENVER — For just a second, the Nets had a glimmer of hope when they trimmed five points off an 18-point Nuggets lead in the third quarter. But point guard D’Angelo Russell committed two careless turnovers on consecutive possessions, and the Nuggets converted both into easy baskets. Game over.
That’s when Nets coach Kenny Atkinson showed Russell to a seat on the bench for the final 17:43 of a 112-104 loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday night at Pepsi Center. Yes, the Nets were coming off a hard-fought win the previous night in Phoenix, and they were playing shorthanded at a mile-high altitude without injured forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Trevor Booker.
Without a doubt, the Nets were outmanned in the frontcourt by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who scored a career-high 41 points, shot 16-for-25 and added 12 rebounds, and Paul Millsap, who had 17 points and shot 7-for-11. But it seemed a little disturbing that, one night after playing a stellar fourth quarter in the win in Phoenix, Russell could play such a careless eight-turnover game, giving him a total of 13 turnovers in the past two games.
“I want him to get better,” Atkinson said. “It’s frustrating. It’s like a quarterback that throws two interceptions. Those are tough to overcome. We talked about it at halftime. I brought him out [of the game], we talked about it. I said, ‘Improve.’ We’ve got to help him get better at it. We’ve got to look at it on film, how they’re occurring.”
Russell, who is the centerpiece of the Nets’ rebuilding project, played well enough on the offensive end, with 12 points and six assists, but besides his turnovers, there were times he seemed utterly lost on defense. He wasn’t alone. Collectively, the Nets committed 25 turnovers, leading to 27 easy points by the Nuggets (6-5).
“You can’t cough it up like that,” Atkinson said. “I just don’t think we had the requisite juice. It was like we were walking in mud in everything we did.”
To his credit, Russell didn’t shirk responsibility. “Man, there’s no excuse,” Russell said. “I’ve just got to be better.”
Asked if the Nuggets’ ball pressure forced the issue, Russell said: “I think it was really on us, just being real nonchalant. It started with me being careless with the ball and just not valuing it . . . They came from everywhere. Missed dribbles, forcing the issue. It was a little bit of everything.”
The Nets (4-7) got a big game from center Tyler Zeller, who shot 8-for-10 and scored 21 points, and they also got 13 points from Caris LeVert.
Zeller acknowledged the turnover problem but also credited Russell’s passing with producing some of his easy baskets.
“Tonight, I was able to score,” Zeller said. “They were trapping D’Angelo, a large amount of pressure on the ball. He was able to throw it out, and I was able to make plays . . . A lot of times, I just had to shoot layups. It makes it very easy.”
Because Russell has such a high profile as the second overall pick of the 2015 draft, it’s hard to remember that he’s still only 21 and is adjusting to his fifth head coach and system in as many years. Veteran DeMarre Carroll said he had a long, supportive conversation with Russell on Tuesday morning.
“At the end of the day, he’s trying to feel his way, coming from the Lakers, where it was all open offense, one on one,” Carroll said. “He’s trying to feel his way in, know when to attack and know when to make the right plays. So right now he may be overthinking a little bit . . . We’re going to need him. We need his scoring. It’s growing pains. He’ll learn, and he’ll definitely be better.”
Note & quotes: Asked whether Hollis-Jefferson (hip contusion) or Booker (sore lower back) might be ready to play Friday in Portland, Atkinson said, “Hopeful, hopeful. Rondae took a pretty good hit. We’ll check him out [Wednesday]. Same thing with Book. Those are two important pieces for us. Hopefully, they’re back.” . . . In their absence, Atkinson made liberal use of Jacob Wiley, who is one of two Nets on a two-way contract.