When the Nets took the court against the Suns on Saturday night, they didn’t just see a team on a long winning streak, or a formidable opponent with a chance at a championship. They saw an image of what they want to be — what they absolutely have to be to live up to their potential.
They saw a team with cohesion. A team with adaptability. And, above all, a team with identity. Steve Nash hopes they saw a team that looks a lot like what the Nets will be like when it really, really counts. But for now, the loss also really, really hurts.
The Suns, coming in on the second game of a back-to-back, continued to show why they’re one of the best teams in the NBA. At the same time, they drew to within one victory of tying the franchise-best 17-game winning streak that Nash himself helped put together when he was in Phoenix in 2006. They beat the Nets, 113-107, in front of 18,071 at Barclays Center, the largest Nets crowd in the arena’s history.
The game also showcased what is turning into something of a pressing concern for the Nets. Yes, they’re first in the Eastern Conference, and they’ve won 12 of their last 15, but they continue to struggle against teams that matter; they’re 0-5 against the Suns, Golden State, Bulls, Heat and Bucks.
It didn’t help that the first quarter of Saturday’s game had elements of their Nov. 16 trouncing by Golden State in which the Nets looked thoroughly outplayed by another title contender.
At least this time, though, they showed sparks of life — such as a second-quarter resurrection after an abysmal first period and the fact that they drew to within seven points with 2:31 left in the game after trailing by 22 in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t enough, though, as Patty Mills missed back-to-back open three-pointers and DeAndre’ Bembry fouled Chris Paul with 39 seconds left to seal the defeat.
"I think we’re a team that’s still forming, still trying to find an identity," Nash said. "This team has a clear identity, a clear understanding of what they’re trying to do offensively and defensively. It’s something that we’re still in the very early stages of. You couple that with sometimes we get away from our game, we go behind — those are signs of a new team, a team that’s trying to understand each other."
Devin Booker led the Suns with 30 points and Kevin Durant had 39 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for the Nets. James Harden had a mercurial effort, with 12 points, 14 assists, 13 rebounds and seven turnovers. Bembry had his best game of the season, scoring 18 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
The Nets had 20 turnovers to the Suns’ 13, for 20 points, and 15 of those Nets turnovers came in the first half. The turnovers were "a little bit of everything," Harden said. It was "a little bit of rust . . . a combination of things. Spacing, it just wasn’t good. It wasn’t what we’ve been these last few weeks."
The Nets gave up a 17-4 run in the first quarter — a stretch in which they fell behind 34-20 at the end of the period and mostly ensured that they would never lead. The Suns spent the first 18 minutes of play teaching an NBA master class, dominating possession, playing with a pace the Nets couldn’t quite match and forcing 15 first-half turnovers.
"You’ve got to give credit to the other teams for playing good defense on us, pressuring us at times and taking us out of our sets," Durant said when asked if the Nets are still feeling themselves out. "Everybody is still learning each other around the league. There are a lot of turnovers on a lot of different teams, so that holds true for everybody in the league, but for us, it’s just the little things we’ve got to correct, the detail things we’ve got to correct, but I think we did it in spurts tonight."