Nuggets, Nikola Jokic hand Nets third loss in row
Beginning a stretch that very well could define their playoff hopes, the Nets needed to rise above the well-established obstacles that have hindered their performance in this post-superstar era. Instead, on Sunday afternoon, they played right into the script.
They continued to get outplayed on the boards and the Western Conference-leading Nuggets did what powerhouse teams do as the Nets dropped their third in a row, 108-102, at Barclays Center.
The Nets (39-32) are holding on to the sixth seed — the final guaranteed playoff spot — by the thinnest of margins. Their lead over Miami (39-34) is down to one game. The seventh-place team is headed for the play-in tournament.
And it doesn’t get much easier after this, with two games against the Cavaliers on Tuesday and Thursday at Barclays Center followed by a trip to Miami to play the Heat.
“Early on they were the aggressors and they set the tone of the game,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “The scouting report says to try to go offensive rebound against the Nets and we understand it and we really [need to do] a diligent job of continuing to try to do it together . . . We literally need all five people to come back and get a piece of somebody.”
The Nets, who trailed by 22 points with less than eight minutes left, drew to within seven with 3:43 to go but ultimately were doomed by some ill-timed misses. Day’Ron Sharpe missed one of his two free throws and Seth Curry and Cam Johnson hit the rim on back-to-back three-point attempts before the Nuggets scored five straight to take a 14-point lead with 1:41 to go.
Michael Porter Jr. scored 28 points, Jamal Murray had 25 and Nikola Jokic recorded a triple-double with 22 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists for Denver (48-24). Mikal Bridges scored 23 for the Nets.
The Nets, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA, shot 12-for-35 (34.3%) and were only 7-for-26 in the first three quarters. The Nuggets were 12-for-23 (52.2%) from three-point range. The Nets were outrebounded 40-33.
“They’re just not going in right now,” Johnson said. “I can only speak of myself personally, but that’s life as a basketball player. If it was easy, everybody would be shooting threes and be making them. You’ve got to weather storms and continue to shoot but it’s tough, because I think we had a lot of good looks tonight.”
The Nets, who have primarily relied on Nic Claxton’s rebounding, eventually should get some help in the form of 7-2 Moses Brown, who signed a 10-day contract but did not play Sunday.
The Nets fell behind by 14 a little more than a minute into the second quarter but cut that deficit to four behind a 15-5 run capped by Claxton’s three-point play with 6:08 left in the first half. Their momentum stalled there, though, as Murray had nine points and Jokic eight in the final six minutes, staking the Nuggets to a 63-48 lead at the break.
And unlike their previous meeting — the one in which the Nets contained the Nuggets by essentially depriving Jokic of all his help — that didn’t quite work here. Murray scored all 25 of his points in the first half (20 in the first quarter) and was 4-for-4 from three-point range. The Nets were 4-for-16 from three-point range in the half and the Nuggets shot 25-for-40 (62.5%) from the field in that span.
“It’s tough shots,” said Royce O’Neale, who scored seven off the bench. “It’s shots going in and out and shots guys usually make. If we made a couple more, the game goes the opposite way, but it’s basketball. You can’t think about it too much.”