DENVER — After the NBA trade deadline, the Nets’ theme for the final 26 games of the season was “reset” with a changed team that traded away Bojan Bogdanovic, welcomed the long-awaited return of Jeremy Lin from the injury list, added rookie Caris LeVert to the starting lineup in place of Bogdanovic and gave Brook Lopez another deadline reprieve.
But their brief sense of optimism was undone by a horrific defensive effort that altered the theme, as if by the hand of a graffiti artist, to read “regress.” The Nuggets’ domination was so thorough in their 129-109 victory Friday night at Pepsi Center that Nets coach Kenny Atkinson saw no point in playing Lin more than the first four minutes of the second half. That gave him a total of 14 minutes in his return as the Nets’ losing streak reached 15 games and 26 of their past 27.
Lin had seven points and five assists in his brief time on the floor. Lopez led the Nets (9-48) with 17 points and 7-for-11 shooting, and they got 15 points and nine rebounds from Trevor Booker, 15 points and eight rebounds from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 12 points from Isaiah Whitehead and 10 from LeVert in his second career start.
The Nuggets (26-32) were led by Gary Harris (25 points) and Wilson Chandler (24 points). Danilo Gallinari added 20 points and eight rebounds and big man Mason Plumlee had 12 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. The Nuggets shot 50.5 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from three-point range and scored 62 points in the paint.
Lin was making just his 13th appearance in 57 games. This marked only the eighth game he started with Lopez and the 11th in which the Nets used the “Brook-Lin” pairing.
Despite their NBA-worst record, the Nets actually were beginning the most important part of their season with a chance to get a deeper evaluation of the future of Lin and Lopez as the marquee faces of the franchise. But Lin’s most recent 60-day layoff clearly was a major setback.
“I definitely felt extremely slow today, specifically on the defensive end,” he said. “In that third quarter, really all game, actually, I felt like I couldn’t move at the speed I wanted to, which showed itself defensively. Offensively, you kind of know how to get to your spots. But defensively, I have to do a way better job than I did tonight. I just did a really bad job . . . I’m just not used to seeing the speed. I’ve got to get used to it.”
The Nets gave up at least 30 points in each of the first three quarters, but the third was their worst. Lopez hit a three-pointer right away to cut their deficit to eight points, but after Jameer Nelson responded with a three, the home team never let the lead slip to single digits again, pushing it to a high of 32 points early in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think our energy level was where it needed to be; I don’t think the execution of our game plan was where it needed to be,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think our effort on the boards was good enough. We definitely didn’t defend the three-point line. We talked at halftime about getting better contests at the three-point line. Teeing it up from three, it’s too easy of a shot with your feet set, and we have to do a better job.”
If the Nuggets could shred the Nets in that fashion, the mind shuddered to think what awaits them Saturday night in Oakland against the mighty Warriors (48-9). “We’ve got a tough test tomorrow,” Atkinson said. “We definitely better get our ‘D’ together or it’s going to be a long night.”