In the words of Nets guard Sean Kilpatrick, the Houston Rockets “have a license to shoot, and everyone is a threat.”
That was the perfect description of a team that everyone in the NBA has had trouble containing, and it turned out to be an impossible task for the Nets, who were outgunned, 137-112, Sunday night at Barclays Center.
It was the 10th straight loss for the Nets, who allowed a season-high number of points by an opponent for the second straight game after giving up 132 Friday night in Toronto.
The Nets tied a franchise record set in the opener with 44 three-point attempts, and the Rockets also took 44 threes for a total of 88, tying an NBA record. The difference was that the Rockets made 21 to the Nets’ 15 for an 18-point differential, and they also made 24 of 32 free-throw attempts to the Nets’ 15 of 19. It was a combination of lethal outside and inside scoring the Nets simply couldn’t match.
“We just could never stop them,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I don’t think we stopped them the whole night. I think we tried a lot of different things, tried changing coverages, and couldn’t find a solution. Potent, powerful offensive team. We couldn’t find the defensive switch . . . There really was no point in the game where I felt that we had them under control.”
Atkinson is a disciple of the playing style pioneered by Houston coach Mike D’Antoni from his days as an assistant under D’Antoni with the Knicks. The problem Atkinson faces is that it will be a long time before he and general manager Sean Marks can put together a cast remotely comparable to James Harden and company.
Harden had a triple-double with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists and the Rockets (32-11) had two other 20-point scorers in Eric Gordon (24) and Trevor Ariza (23). The Nets (8-32) played without center Brook Lopez, who was rested for the fourth time this season, and were led by Trevor Booker, who had 18 points, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Without Lopez, the Nets went to a small lineup for much of the time and got up and down the floor with Houston during a frantic first half that ended with the Rockets ahead 74-66. It was the most points given up in a half by the Nets this season.
“They were really trying to get it out and push,” said Joe Harris, who had 12 points but shot 2-for-8 from three-point range. “They wanted to get into an offensive match with us to try and outshoot us, really, and they did exactly that. They kind of lull you into taking shots that are a little bit uncharacteristic and a little bit out of the offense. But it fell back on us trying to limit them in transition defense.”
Harris was surprised to learn the teams took 88 threes. “It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “You could tell early on that the pace of the game was really quick. But guys were taking clean looks with room and rhythm, which is what you want.”
It was an entertaining display, but the fun went out of it for the Nets when the Rockets went on a 13-0 run early in the third quarter to take an 87-68 lead. From there, the Nets never got closer than 12 points.
“In the first three minutes of the third quarter, they came out and punched us,” said Kilpatrick, who had a 2-for-11 shooting night. “That’s how it normally is when teams feel we’re a threat.”
D’Antoni lauds Atkinson. D’Antoni hopes Atkinson gets time to prove himself. “He’s a very good coach, and hopefully he gets a chance,” D’Antoni said. “A lot of coaches are in a position where they just don’t have a chance — not yet. If you hang in there, he’s a good coach, and he’ll get over the hump.”
Before the game, D’Antoni was asked about how his approach to high-octane offense, which was derided by some when he coached the Knicks for 3 1⁄2 seasons, has become the flavor of the moment in the NBA. Cutting off the question to make a joke at his own expense, D’Antoni said, “The way that got me fired?
“It’s always nice to know you’re not completely crazy when you’re doing things. It’s just the way I thought we should play and the way I thought the game should look. You do have to have the players and the talent and the management, and everybody’s got to go on line — the star players, the coaches, the management and the owner.”
Atkinson certainly is a disciple of the up-tempo, spread offense that relies on threes and layups.
“A lot of people said that offense changed the way the game is played,” Atkinson said of D’Antoni. “It was a shock to all of us, him coming into the league with that Phoenix team and playing the way he did and not posting up and keeping the floor spread. I compare it to the NFL when they went to spread offenses.
“I think Mike was ahead of the game even before analytics. That’s the most impressive thing. He figured it out before the rest of us figured it out. He figured out the value of the three-point shot. Everybody thinks Mike is threes, threes, threes. He likes layups just as much, and free throws.”