The Nets are second in the NBA with 10 clutch wins, meaning games with a point difference of five points or less in the final five minutes. But Wednesday night at Barclays Center, no one was more clutch than Hornets budding star Devonte’ Graham, who broke open a tie game with a deep two-pointer and followed with a three-pointer with 21.9 seconds left that clinched a 113-108 victory and snapped a three-game Nets winning streak.
The Nets led by as much as 20 points in the second quarter and 17 in the third, but the Hornets refused to go away and fought back to take a 93-91 lead when Graham buried a left-wing three with 6:53 left in the game. The Nets momentarily regained the lead on a three-pointer by Spencer Dinwiddie and then tied it twice more at 99 on a three-point play by Dinwiddie and again at 106 on a reverse layup by Dinwiddie at the 1:10 mark. That’s when the Hornets (11-16) gave Graham the ball, and he delivered, capping a virtuoso 40-point game that included 7-for-12 three-point shooting.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson suggested the Nets got “lulled” into thinking it would be an easy game because they won two earlier meetings with the Hornets this season. “I just think we got into a back-and-forth game, didn’t put our foot down, all the clichés,” Atkinson said.
Dinwiddie led the Nets (13-11) with 24 points and six assists, and center Jarrett Allen added 21 points and 10 rebounds, his 10th double-double in the past 12 games. But the Nets shot only 26.3 percent from three-point range (10 of 38), and their starting five was a combined 5-for-27 from above the arc.
The Nets were outscored 60-44 in the second half when the Hornets went to a zone defense that made it difficult for the Nets to go inside to centers Allen and DeAndre Jordan, who combined for 23 points and in the first half but managed only a combined seven second-half points.
“We were taking advantage of them being up on screens, slipping to the rim, and that’s putting them out of position for rebounding,” Allen said of the first half. “But when they went into the zone, they had all five in the paint ready to rebound.”
The fact the Nets were having a poor shooting night from outside allowed the Hornets to sit back in the zone. In the first half, the Nets’ second unit did a great job putting together a 24-4 run, including 10 points from Theo Pinson to gain the 20-point lead. They were leading by 15 shortly before Dinwiddie left the game in the third quarter, but this time, they put the car in reverse. The Hornets finished the period on a 17-4 run that ended with five straight three-pointers, three by Miles Bridges and two by Graham to cut their deficit to 86-84.
“We definitely got stagnant after they went to the zone, which is pretty surprising with the caliber of shooters we have,” Dinwiddie said. “When you have guys like Joe [Harris], [Garrett Temple] and Taurean Prince on the floor, we’ve just got to get those guys shots. They’re phenomenal shooters. Nobody should be able to zone us, especially in our own house. We should be able to shoot them out of that thing.”
Then Graham took over for the Hornets down the stretch, and the Nets never tried double-teaming him to get the ball out of his hands. “We did change our pick-and-roll coverage a bunch of times,” Atkinson said. “That didn’t seem to help. We didn’t double-team him. Looking back, maybe we should have done it. That’s on me, understanding we probably had to change some things up, and we didn’t make the necessary changes.”