PHOENIX — The tone of what turned into a 138-112 loss to the Suns on Sunday night was set from the opening moments of the game. The Nets got a defensive stop on the Suns’ first possession, then watched as the Suns made 10 straight baskets to take a 24-11 lead. It was exactly the sort of poor first quarter that has been a prominent Nets trend this season.
“We’ll have to look at it,” coach Kenny Atkinson said after the game. “It’s just not a strong first-quarter defensive team. We’ve given up 30 points I don’t know how many times in the first quarter. It’s just something we’ve got to look at.”
Through their first nine games, the Nets (4-5) gave up at least 31 points in the first quarter six times. They trailed in five of those games and were tied in the other one.
Atkinson’s concern was manifested when he called a Monday practice in Phoenix on what had been scheduled as a recovery day before flying to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz on Tuesday night.
In their previous two wins over the Pelicans at home and the Trail Blazers on the road, the Nets played stronger defense and took first-quarter leads. But such a serious first-quarter meltdown against the Suns came as a warning signal to a team with a starting unit that is offensively talented but defensively deficient.
“You have to feel the moment,” Atkinson said after practice Monday. “I definitely think we feel the moment. Great film session, little shooting session and cleanup session . . . When you have slippage, you start right in it, go over our core principles, but I think they felt that.
“We didn’t talk about the coverages. I didn’t think the compete level was where it needed to be. All the players agreed. I think our togetherness offensively and defensively wasn’t there. When you don’t have those two things, it doesn’t matter what scheme you have. It’s the first game I felt that way. I don’t want to overreact, but I felt like we needed to address it.”
After the loss to the Suns, Atkinson ruled out a change to the starting lineup, but one was forced on him when Caris LeVert was ruled out of the Jazz game with a sprained left thumb. The coach said he was wavering between moving Spencer Dinwiddie to the starting unit for his defensive ability or keeping him in his comfort zone and going with Garrett Temple to start against the Jazz backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.
Against the Suns, the plus-minus numbers for the Nets’ starters ranged from LeVert’s minus-15 to a minus-35 for Joe Harris, who said it really comes down to each player doing a better job of guarding his own man.
“This is a very difficult road trip for us, but it’s going to test us,” Harris said.
“Any time you get blasted like that, it humbles you. I think there’s a lot we can learn from it, a lot we can take and apply in Utah against one of the better teams in the NBA.”