It was the cruelest of endings for the Nets. Two nights after being on the wrong end of a 25-2 run in a loss to the Nuggets, the Nets put together a 23-2 run to wipe out an 18-point third-quarter deficit against the Suns, and they appeared on the verge of a remarkable comeback thanks to a tremendous defensive effort from their bench.
But the visitors pulled off a terrible Halloween trick by overcoming an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to send the Nets to their third straight loss by a 122-114 count Tuesday night at Barclays Center. The defensive meltdown coincided with the return to the game of offensive-oriented shooters D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Nets put together another 11-1 streak to take their biggest lead at 106-98. But that’s where their momentum faltered. TJ Warren scored eight points in an 18-2 run that gave the Suns a 116-108 lead with 2:02 left, and they cruised home from there.
Coach Kenny Atkinson said he sees the team as a whole, but he acknowledged the work done by the second unit to regain the late lead. “Give them credit,” Atkinson said. “They all did a good job. Yeah, there’s energy there. They really got us back into the game.”
Devin Booker topped the Suns (3-4) with 32 points, Mike James had 24 and Warren finished with 20 plus 11 rebounds. The Suns dominated the boards, 66-44. Russell led the Nets (3-5) with 33 points but was minus-22, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 21, Spencer Dinwiddie had 15, DeMarre Carroll scored 13, and Caris LeVert totaled 11. The Nets made only nine of 31 three-point attempts.
“You can talk about the fourth quarter, but [the Suns] outplayed us,” Atkinson said. “If we had pulled it out, we wouldn’t have deserved it. Somehow, we’ve gotten out of rhythm the last three games.”
Last season, the third quarter often was the Nets’ undoing, and it appeared that narrative might take hold again as the Suns opened with a 24-14 run, including 11 points from Booker, to push their lead to 18. But the Nets responded with a 6-0 burst to cut the deficit to 83-71.
Then, Atkinson brought in his second unit, and they really got into the Suns on defense. Suddenly, that 6-0 surge turned into an extended 23-2 run as the Nets gained an 88-85 lead on back-to-back threes by Dinwiddie before the Suns scored the final basket of the quarter to make it a one-point game.
When the Nets gained an eight-point lead with 6:35 to play, they seemed to be on their way to an uplifting win, but it went south quickly. Speaking of the starting unit, Russell said, “We’ve got to come in and be more aggressive. The bench played well. They made it happen. They forced [the Suns] and got stops.
“It starts with me. I’ve got to put more pressure on the ball.”
Atkinson said the defense broke down in part because the Nets were working hard to stop Booker and allowed Warren to slip inside for key offensive rebounds when Booker missed. The Nets’ coach also faulted his team’s shot selection and said poor offense often led to bad defense.
“They just took over,” Atkinson said of the Suns. “We didn’t make plays. I thought our shot selection was iffy the whole game. I think we set a Nets record for mid-range, contested jump shots . . . For most of the season, we’ve done a pretty good job moving the ball, and tonight for some reason, it stuck, It didn’t move, and they capitalized.
“We get down when we miss shots and when we don’t move the ball. It affects our spirit. We settled for a lot of contested shots. It was surprising.”