Before tipoff Wednesday night at Barclays Center, Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld spoke admiringly of how hard the Nets play and the coaching job Kenny Atkinson has done to turn them into a surprising Eastern Conference playoff contender this season. Then the Wizards came out and ran roughshod over the Nets, building a 28-point third-quarter lead on their way to a 125-116 victory.
The Nets never got closer than the final nine-point margin on their last possession. It was the kind of game that made Nets fans shake their heads in disbelief since it came one game after the Nets held the Spurs to 85 points. The Wizards reached that mark midway through the third period on their way to 101 by the end of the quarter, which was the most given up by the Nets through three quarters all season.
Reminded that effort is the Nets’ calling card, Joe Harris said, “That’s why this one stings. This was really uncharacteristic of our team. We lost by nine, but it was a lot worse than the final score indicated.”
Can you say “clunker?” That’s the word Nets coach Kenny Atkinson used to describe it. “Whatever ‘it’ is, we didn’t have it tonight,” Atkinson said. “It was a lack of sharpness. Games like this happen in the NBA, but I didn’t like the way it happened . . . It was nine points, but it really was a 20-point or 25-point loss the way it feels.
“I don’t think we’ve had too many clunkers like this. This was a clunker.”
Once again, the Nets (32-31) hurt themselves by getting beaten on the boards, 57-41, and by 16 turnovers that turned into 29 Wizards points. D’Angelo Russell had another impressive offensive performance with 28 points and seven assists, but he committed five turnovers and got little support as Shabazz Napier (22 points) and Jarrett Allen (12) were the only other Nets to score in double figures. Caris LeVert struggled through a scoreless game, and the Nets had a poor 8-for-35 performance (22.9 percent) from three-point range.
Bradley Beal topped the Wizards (25-36) with 31 points, Trevor Ariza added 23 and nine rebounds, and Thomas Bryant had 18 points.
The Nets broke quickly from the gate, jumping to a 10-0 lead, but that giddy start quickly dissipated as the Nets struggled from three-point range, missing nine straight from deep at one stretch of the first quarter. Beal’s 12 points in the opening period helped the Wizards lead 34-28.
Allen suggested the quick start might have lulled the Nets into an early sleep. “I think that told us we’re here to play and we can tone it down a little bit,” Allen said. “It might have given us a false sense [of security]. We came out unprepared, just mentally unfocused. You could tell our energy wasn’t there, and our minds weren’t either.”
The Nets let the game get out of hand at the outset of the third quarter when the Wizards opened with a 21-5 run, including 11 points from Ariza and six from Beal to build an 89-65 lead. That run was fueled by seven Nets turnovers. “There was a lack of focus,” Atkinson said. “At the level where we are, we have to scratch and claw. You can’t relax and win in this league.”
The sixth-place Nets’ next two games are against teams close behind them in the Eastern Conference race, Charlotte at home Friday night and Saturday night in Miami. “Both of those games are huge for us,” Harris said, “given the situation record-wise, where the three of us all are at. You have to take advantage of the home court. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that tonight.”