The Nets got back superstar Kevin Durant on Sunday night. What they didn’t get was Kyrie Irving — or a win.
Despite Durant’s strong return after a week-long quarantine, the Nets still blew a lead in a 129-116 loss to Oklahoma City at Barclays Center.
Having missed the prior three games due to health and safety protocols — a league term for COVID-19 contact tracing — Durant never skipped a beat, with 36 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. And despite questions about whether he could excel next to Durant, Caris LeVert added 21 points, six assists and four boards.
It wasn’t enough.
The Nets (5-6) led by five roughly midway through the third quarter before they allowed an extended 25-7 run to end the period. They shot just 3-for-11 and committed four turnovers, watching a 74-69 edge turn into a 13-point hole.
The Nets had lost control of the game, and could never wrest it back.
“We want to play the right way, so to speak, no matter who’s in the lineup,” coach Steve Nash had said. “Obviously you’re going to play a slightly different game with Kevin in the lineup than without his prowess, his ability to score in isolation, in the post, at all levels, in all scenarios. So in a sense, you can lean on that, whereas when he’s not in the lineup, you have to lean more on the connectivity of ball movement, things like that.
“But, no matter who’s in the lineup, we’ve got to play together. We’ve got to play hard, stick to our principles defensively. There’s certain tenets that we’ve got to build on every single night if we’re going to continue to grow into a really good basketball team. Kevin gives us a huge boost in the talent department, but we still want to play the right way, see the movements, actions, and connectivity.”
There was little connectivity on the defensive end, where Oklahoma City made the Nets pay.
Brooklyn allowed torrid 54.4 percent shooting, and surrendered 21 fast-break points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder with 31 points, seven assists and six boards, while Hamidou Diallo added 25.
Granted, Nash used his sixth different starting lineup of the season, with Jeff Green, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris joining Durant and LeVert. Harris, who had come off the bench in the prior three games, started at off-guard and Green at small forward in the Nets’ version of going big.
It helped with rebounding — a major weakness — but not ball security or perimeter defense, two other Nets Achilles’ heels the Thunder took advantage of.
For the first time since joining the team, Durant played without Irving by his side. And the All-Star point guard’s presence was sorely missed, especially with the Nets also bereft of Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL) and Tyler Johnson (quarantine). The Nets were too sloppy, giving away not just their own scoring opportunities, but cheap transition buckets the other way.
Nets led 74-69 with 6:52 left in the third on Durant’s free throw. But that’s when they surrendered a 15-2 run, including the last 10 straight, to lose control of the game. They trailed by eight after a Isaiah Roby 3-pointer, and never recovered.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot hit a 3, then took a charge on Gilgeous-Alexander while Taurean Prince’s drive pulled the Nets within 84-81. But that’s as close as they got, surrendering another 10-0 run to close the period.
DeAndre Jordan’s flagrant foul sealed the run, leaving them down by 13 after the third. The Thunder opened the fourth with a baseline dunk from Diallo — a former Nets draft pick. The Nets — down 96-81 —spent the rest of the night chasing.
The Nets have a back-to-back starting at home on Tuesday against the Nuggets and Wednesday at the Garden against the Knicks. It remains to be seen if Irving will play in either, but they do at least have Durant back.
“Kevin is excited,” Nash said. “He was devastated to have to sit out. We all know he loves the game and loves to hoop. So he’s excited to be back, and obviously I’m one happy coach to have him back. So I’m thrilled to see him get his legs back under him.”