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James Harden near triple-double not enough to lead KD-less Nets past Rockets, 114-104

Brooklyn Nets v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Close but not enough.

The Nets were beaten by the Rockets, 114-104, Wednesday night. With the loss, Brooklyn falls to 9-3 on the road and dips to 17-8 on the young season. They remain first in the East as both the Bulls lost.

Brooklyn rolled the dice heading into the loss, resting Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. In a game the Nets played from behind throughout, the team came close but couldn’t get over the hump with the weapons they had.

“We gave up 67 points in the first half and dug ourselves too big of a hole,” Steve Nash said. “It was 17 in the fourth and we cut it to four, so proud of the effort there but too many stretches where we weren’t physical enough and didn’t have the fight.”

In his first trip back in front of a full crowd at Toyota Center, James Harden delivered a near triple-double performance of 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes of play. BUT Harden shot 4-of-16 from the field and 3-of-12 from 3-point range. Among the starters, Patty Mills followed with 12 points in 31 minutes of action.

“It’s frustrating. We got down early and gave them too many opportunities. We know how well they’ve been playing in these last week or two. It’s frustrating when you’re shorthanded so many guys and you’re trying to make up for it, so many things, especially coming off a back-to-back,” said Harden on the loss. “Me personally playing 42 minutes last night, it’s just frustrating but it’s out of your control. You just got to keep pushing.”

Cam Thomas put together a career-best game off the bench, finishing with a career-high 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field and 1-of-5 shooting from deep in 32 minutes of play. Paul Millsap also delivered a well-rounded punch off the bench with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists in 19 minutes. Nic Claxton, starting in place of LMA, finished with eight points and four boards, shooting 3-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from the line.

“I thought David played well. I thought Cam, we needed shooting and scoring out there, so I think those guys earned those minutes, and we also kind of needed it,” said Nash on the play of his two rookies. “We were playing from behind and you got to try to score the ball too. Can’t catch up without scoring and you got to get stops too, but if you don’t score, you’re stuck so Cam can score, David can score a little bit, and also defend. They earned a little extended run there.”

In his NBA debut, Brooklyn’s two-way guard, David Duke Jr. finished with nine points, three rebounds and one assist in 21 minutes off the bench, playing solid defense as well. Duke Jr. had been troubled by a hip flexor.

“Give credit to Duke. He played extremely hard, played well, and came in and did what he was supposed to do,” said Harden on the rookie’s performance. “That’s all you can ask for from a young guy. He played extremely well and much respect to Duke for that.”

The Nets put out a brand new starting five — Harden, Mills, Claxton, DeAndre’ Bembry and James Johnson — a group that hadn’t play a single minute together prior to Wednesday’s game. After sluggish play in the opening minutes, the unit forged a 9-0 run through the hot hand of Mills to take an 11-10 advantage early.

Brooklyn struggled to defend Eric Gordon — who scored 15 of the Rockets’ 30 first-quarter points. Gordon had little resistance getting to the rim and through off-ball screens, he was able to get quality looks outside the perimeter, carrying Houston’s offense in the first frame. The Nets' second unit was led by Mills and Thomas — who both scored six points — and trailed 30-23 after one.

“I just didn’t think we were aggressive enough defensively to start the game,” said Nash on the slow start. “I thought we were a step off, a step slow and clearly, we picked it up in the second half but at halftime, that was the message. I wouldn’t fully judge the start of tonight’s game because I think we can do better, but I liked that unit. I thought that unit is something I wouldn’t mind out there on the floor again.”

The Rockets opened the second on a 6-2 run to take a double-digit advantage (36-25) through two minutes of the frame. After Houston ballooned their lead to 18, the Nets subbed in Blake Griffin for the first time in six games. The Nets went on a 12-0 run — which included David Duke Jr.’s first NBA points — to cut the deficit to eight points midway through the second. That was the closest the team got to the Rockets in the first half.

Brooklyn faced a small scare after Harden landed awkwardly on Jae’Sean Tate’s foot coming down from a 3-point shot. Harden was limping down the court but remained in the game to finish off the second half. The Nets superstar concluded the half with a team-high 14 points, five rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes of action.

Despite cutting the deficit to eight points in the second, the Nets hit the break trailing by 15 points (67-52). The 67 points were the most allowed in any half this season. The team shot only 39.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three.

Brooklyn Nets v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

“At halftime, we talked about getting into them more and being more physical and confrontational defensively,” Nash said.

Although Brooklyn cut into Houston’s lead after halftime, the Nets couldn’t string together a series of stops, allowing the Rockets to grow their advantage to 17 points with just over five minutes remaining in the third. Houston continued to thrive off second-chance opportunities and restrict Brooklyn from getting out early, resulting in a 90-73 hole heading into the fourth.

The Nets sparked an extended 14-2 run — which included a patient Harden stepback three for a four-point play — to trim the deficit to four points with seven minutes remaining. But Harden missed a three that would have put them within one and that was the closest Brooklyn got in their comeback attempt and dropped the contest by seven.

“Of course,” said Harden on if he made a three to cut the deficit to one it would be a different game down the stretch. “If I hit any of those shots, it’s a different, different story especially that one being down four. The game gets a little tighter and we were already on a run.”

The Film Room

There wasn’t much to gloat about in this one.

James Harden was underwhelming, triple-double aside, in his homecoming in Houston. Patty Mills had a quiet night by his standards. Even Nicolas Claxton couldn’t capitalize after his promising night in Dallas. In hindsight, this was probably a schedule loss. An 11-man rotation that shot just 8-of-33 from three (24.2%) isn’t exactly a great sandbox for James Harden to play in.

So let’s talk about the rookies, Cam Thomas and David Duke Jr., who both showed some things!

Duke Jr. flashed the two-way potential that made him such an intriguing find in Summer League, being a pest at the point-of-attack and forcing deflections. Though his jump shot (1-for-4 from deep) is still a work in progress, it was good to see him knock his first NBA bucket down from deep.

Maybe most encouraging of all is Duke’s ability to cut along the baseline. He’s Brooklyn’s best baseline cutter since, shoot, Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot? Rodions Kurucs? Regardless, climbing upstairs for baseline dunks is in Duke Jr.’s ministry, and he took advantage of warped Houston defenses on numerous occasions.

This is a real skill the Nets can use — some athleticism that can catch opponents by surprise while tip-toeing along the baseline — especially with the level of playmaking Brooklyn has on the roster.

“James (Harden) is an amazing passer, amazing facilitator, just an amazing player overall. So it’s easy to play with him, you just try to find your opening and he’ll find you,” said Duke Jr. after the game. “Same thing with Paul (Millsap). Paul’s a great passer, so playing with those guys tonight just made everything so much easier.”

We can’t forget Cam Thomas, who did what he does best: score. And score tough buckets. He got himself going in the second half with a calm catch-and-shoot three-ball (something he’s struggled with early in his NBA career at 22%), and the rookie was able to build on that with a series of tough shots.

The move below is ridiculous. He explodes into a side-step, realizes he doesn’t have the edge, then pivots and spins into a brutally difficult floater through contact. It’s incredible he doesn’t run out of steps.

Oh, but you thought that last shot was tricky? Try this one on for size. After getting run off the line, he drives middle but to no avail and then explodes into a reverse-spinning jump-shot — his momentum carrying him away from the basket. No worries. Bucket.

“That’s my game before I got here. I always do stuff like that,” said Thomas about his scoring gifts. “I’ve been doing that since I was just I was a baby, for real.”

Rookie Watch

Two of the Nets four rookies — Cam Thomas and David Duke Jr. — got extended time during the game particularly in the failed comeback, finishing with a combined 56 minutes. That’s the most minutes Brooklyn rooks have gotten this season. Back on November 17, Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards had a combined 33 minutes.

Champions route

Rich Kleiman, Kevin Durant’s agent and manager, posted this on Instagram. Judging by all the media in attendance, we’re like to hear more about this soon.

What’s next

The Nets will play their third game of the four-game road trip on Friday, Dec. 10 when the team travels to Atlanta to play the Hawks. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. ET.

For a different perspective on Wednesday night’s game, check out The Dream Shake — our sister site covering the Rockets.