The Nets’ playoff hopes are hanging by the slimmest of margins as they struggle through a brutal finishing stretch of the schedule. For the second straight game at home, they dug an early hole and couldn’t climb out before suffering a 115-105 loss to the Raptors Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
Their second straight loss dropped the Nets to 39-40, and they fell into a seventh-place tie in the Eastern Conference with the Magic, who defeated the Knicks. Fortunately for the Nets, sixth-place Detroit (39-39) and ninth-place Miami (38-40) also lost, leaving the four teams fighting for the final three spots separated by exactly one game.
In their previous loss to the top-seeded Bucks, the Nets trailed by 22 in the first quarter, and this time, they trailed by 14 early in the second quarter after an extended 27-9 run by the Raptors. In the middle of that stretch, the second-seeded Raptors made five straight three-point attempts, including three by Serge Ibaka.
“It’s always hard to fight back from a deficit,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “It’s something we need to do better at. We all know it. We have to get another win or two.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was disappointed his team didn’t play with more urgency in terms of being physical. “They were the better team from start to finish,” Atkinson said. “Excellent team. A team that’s going to compete for a championship. We were not up to that, those standards. I would say we were average, and that’s not getting it done against a team like that.”
Trailing by 12 points entering the final period, D’Angelo Russell scored nine straight points at the end of an 11-4 Nets surge to cut the deficit to 94-89 with 9:59 to play. But a trio of threes by Pascal Siakim, Ibaka and Kyle Lowry began a 12-5 Raptors spurt to restore a 108-96 cushion.
Russell again responded by burying three straight three-pointers as the Nets trimmed the difference to 110-105 with 1:24 to go. But Ibaka scored on an offensive rebound before Russell missed a fourth three-point try and the Raptors pulled away.
Russell topped the Nets with 27 points, and they got 14 from Dinwiddie. The Raptors (56-23) were led by Siakim with 28 points and 10 rebounds and got 26 points from Kawhi Leonard and 23 from Ibaka.
Although the Nets outrebounded Toronto by one, the Raptors had 17 offensive rebounds they converted into 18 points. That and their 39.5 percent three-point shooting (15 of 38) made the difference against the Nets.
“We’re not exerting the second- and third-effort you need to rebound,” said Jared Dudley, who topped the Nets with three offensive rebounds. “If we get a rebound, it starts our transition, which we’re very good at. You look at the film, and you see people day-dreaming. If they want to take the next step, it’s something they’ll have to correct real fast.”
Ibaka was an X factor making all five of his three-point attempts, and center Marc Gasol hit an early pair that hurt the Nets. “That was our coverage,” Russell said. “Ibaka made those shots and Gasol made those shots as well. You can’t take everything away. They’ve got four other guys that are super-effective. You try to help off those guys [Ibaka and Gasol] and they’re forced to take those shots. They made them tonight.”
Now playoff pressure will mount on the Nets, whose final three games come on the road at first-place Milwaukee and fifth-place Indiana before a home finale against ninth-place Miami. “I just think the pressure elevates,” Russell said. “It’s not a mental toll or anything like that. It’s more like we’ve got to get it if we’re going to get it. Now, not later. There is no later.”