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Depleted Nets fall short late, losing to Raptors, 114-103, in Tampa

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Call it a scheduled loss if you want, but the Nets fought hard in Tampa.

Brooklyn and their 10 active players couldn’t overcome the odds, losing to the Raptors, 114-103 in Tampa. With the loss, the Nets fall to 39-20 on the season and have lost 11 straight on the road against Toronto. Nets head coach Steve Nash noted one factor that was inevitable in the loss — fatigue.

“A big factor was our guys looked tired. Couldn’t make shots and open looks. They fought, battled, tried but didn’t have that sharpness,” Nash said. “You could see it wasn’t as fluid and accurate as we normally are.”

The record books won’t show it, but the Nets didn’t go away late — forging a 12-2 run entering the final three minutes of play down five — but went cold late as heavy legs caught up with them. The Raptors closed out the final minutes on an 8-2 run to escape with the win.

“Fatigue affects your effort, obviously,” said Joe Harris about the Nets’ performance down the stretch. “Being able to lock-in, mentally focus, making the right rotations; and especially late in the game, that’s when you have to be really locked-in, try not to make too many mistakes, and we gave them too many open look opportunities, too many chances to get 50/50 balls, a lot of the sort of effort plays — we weren’t able to make up ground that way.”

Kyrie Irving had another good showing with a near triple-double of 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes of play. Irving shot 10-of-21 from the field and 2-of-5 from deep in the loss.

Bruce Brown provided a must-needed boost off the bench, finishing with 21 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and one assist in 30 minutes of play. It was also his first 20/10 game. When asked about his career-high night on the boards, Brown said Toronto left him open for opportunities offensively, while the rest was effort-based on the defensive end.

“I think it’s just timing. Toronto and the way they play, they leave me so that leaves me opportunities to crash the offensive glass,” Brown said. “On the defensive boards, DJ and the big guys are boxing out so I just try to help them.”

Brown received praise from Nash after the loss. The Nets head coach admired his fight and competitiveness, especially when his team needed it most while shorthanded.

“He’s just such a competitor. He plays so much bigger than his size. (He) defends multiple positions, great rebounder and finds the holes on offense,” Nash said. “We love Bruce. We love his fight and his competitiveness. He definitely plays a big role for us.”

Joe Harris, who hit four big threes in the first quarter, got locked up by Toronto for the rest of the way. He scored 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting overall and 4-of-5 from deep in the loss.

“They locked him to Joe,” Nash said. “They got into him. They were switching a lot of action and made it difficult for him to get open looks. He’s going to get open looks off the flow of the game more so in that scenario and that wasn’t to be tonight. They recognized right away that he’s having a hot night and tried to take him out. He creates space for other people as well.”

Harris attributed his quick cool-off to Toronto’s tightened defense. The Raptors cut off the head of the snake by blitzing Kyrie Irving in pick-and-rolls and were more attentive to the roving Harris on the catch.

“Well first off, Toronto is a good defensive team; they make adjustments over the course of the game depending on who is making plays, who’s not. Obviously, how they guarded (Kyrie Irving), loaded up on him, blitzed him on ball screens, trying to get the ball out of his hands. And then they did a better job being there on my catches, taking away the threes, and making guys try and put it on the deck.”

Brooklyn concluded the loss shooting 39.6 percent overall and 31.7 percent from deep.

For Toronto, Pascal Siakam paved the way with 27 points in 38 minutes followed by OG Anunoby with 25 points in 35 minutes to improve to 25-34 on the season.

The Nets went small to open the contest, starting Griffin at the 5. Steve Nash wanted his players to embrace the challenge and start the game strong, which they did. Brooklyn got Harris going early, hitting his first three three-pointers, off strong movement and spacing to help spark an early 13-4 lead.

Irving was a catalyst in the early run, facilitating in the opening minutes, but went into attack mode. Behind Irving’s aggressive play, Brooklyn forged an 11-4 run to close out the first frame with a 36-23 advantage — their biggest first-quarter lead on the road this season.

“I thought the start was great,” Nash said. “I thought we started sharp. We came with purpose and intent. A part of that is we made shots and they missed shots. The tables turned a little bit and I thought we fatigued as the game went on.”

The Nets superstar finished the first with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting overall and 2-of-2 from deep while Harris led Brooklyn early with 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting from deep (tied for most threes made in a quarter this season) in nine minutes of play.

Brooklyn got a good energy boost early, courtesy of DeAndre Jordan, who rose up and put down an emphatic dunk over Boucher, resulting in Irving leaving his seat on the bench.

Brooklyn continued to get quality looks from behind the arc off drive-and-kick actions and dribble penetration to hit three of their first eight three-point attempts. The Nets got a boost from Griffin, who got to his spots down low and was aggressive. The veteran used his size and strength on the block to force his way to the rim, finishing with eight points on 3-of-5 shooting in 13 minutes.

On the defensive end, it was evident the game plan was to protect the paint and smother driving lanes. Sometimes that would result in an overhelp, leaving the perimeter open for the Raptors to get looks from deep — going 6-of-11 in the frame.

Toronto ended the second with a big response, cutting the deficit to only two points at the break. Despite nursing a two-point cushion at the break, the Nets ended the first half shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from deep. Brooklyn dished 11 assists and outrebounded Toronto 29-24 in the first two frames.

The game got away from the Nets in the third. The Raptors put the pressure on out of the gates to open the second half. Toronto turned their relentless defense into quick offense, resulting in their first lead since the opening possession, forging a 7-0 run, and Nash to call a timeout with 10:06 remaining in the third.

Toronto extended their run to 20-4 after the timeout, picking apart the Nets defensively. Brooklyn struggled with Toronto collapsing the paint and restricting the driving lanes. The Raptors ended up scoring 36 points in the third frame but the Nets finished the third on a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to 92-81.

“I think they just came out with energy. [Toronto] had good pace on offense and we weren’t ready,” Brown said on the third quarter. “They executed and we didn’t execute on the offensive end and didn’t communicate on the defensive end. They took advantage of that.”

The Raptors faced a big scare in the opening minute of the fourth. Chris Boucher appeared to twist his ankle when TLC was going for the offensive rebound. Boucher hobbled to the locker room and didn’t return with a left knee sprain.

Despite losing their promising big man, the Raptors forged a 12-3 run. But the Nets didn’t fade away, remaining on the cusp of single-digits before going cold late.

The Film Room

The Nets are going to need to be perfect or damn near close to it. And credit to them; on the back-end of a road-road back-to-back, the toughest bit of scheduling a team can face in a two-game stretch, the Nets brought it. Sure they looked gassed at the end, but the proof was in the pudding in the first half.

The help rotations were sharp. The passing even sharper. Brooklyn was disguising its sets — shrouding its pick-and-rolls with side-to-side movement or maybe even a dribble handoff to keep the defense on its toes. Ultimately, the ball was going to end up in one of Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, or Landry Shamet’s hands, because duh. The Nets are shorthanded as all heck. But again, the Nets were tactical with how and when the ball reached the fingertips of its defacto stars.

A great example is this baseline out of bounds. The play is run for Joe Harris, but it initially appears as if it’s a Blake Griffin flare screen to free up space for Landry Shamet to streak to the corner. But no! It’s a ruse! The real endpoint of the play is a Blake Griffin dribble-handoff with Joe Harris to help him reach 12 of his 14 points. Again, for Brooklyn, it was all about playing off expectations.

To get to Harris’ third three in just 2 (!!!) minutes, the Nets, again, disguised their movements. With Landry Shamet sprinting into the paint, the Nets were set up with 1 offensive player on one side of the paint (Blake Griffin) and 2 players aligned on the other (Joe Harris and Jeff Green). This alignment could be used to run Landry Shamet off a set known as “floppy,” in which he has the choice of using Blake’s single screen on one side or the double screen with Joe and Jeff on the other. OR, he could break into some “flex screen” action by setting a backscreen for Joe Harris, who would then slither to the basket while Landry would pop to three.

That is... if the Nets were actually running floppy or flex action. Which they were not!

Rather than flowing into a set for Landry, Joe Harris left his position a beat early (before Shamet is even close by) while Jeff Green set a pindown screen to give Harris some room to breathe for three.

It’s going to take just about everything for these Nets to survive the time without Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Credit to the coaching staff. This is how you do it.

Kevin Durant set to possibly return “Friday or Sunday.”

The game of superstar music chairs continues on, as Kevin Durant, this time, is the superstar that appears imminent to return. Prior to tip-off, Nash stated that KD could return on Friday against the Boston Celtics or Sunday against the Phoenix Suns, though Brooklyn’s head coach refrained from making a firm commitment. When he does return, his minutes' load is also (you guessed it) TBD.

“I haven’t actually thought about it yet. That’s a discussion to have with Kevin and performance,” said Nash about a possible ramp-up period. “He was just kind of creeping out of his ramp-up, so how much (his absence) sets him back or doesn’t, I’m not totally sure.”

Nicolas Claxton pending more tests in Health & Safety Protocols, says Steve Nash

Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Raptors, the Nets announced Reggie Perry was available to play, clearing the league’s health and safety protocols. On the other end, Nicolas Claxton, who did not play Tuesday and remains on the league’s health and safety protocols, is pending more tests. Steve Nash is unsure about the details between both of the young big men and their respective cases.

“I’m not certain of the situation or if I’m up to date on exactly how that’s happened but I do know that Reggie [Perry] is available,” Nash said. “Nic is pending more tests.”

As Sponge Bob might say...

Per Will Hanley.

What’s next

The Nets are set to face conference rival, the Boston Celtics, on Friday at 7:30 PM EST. On the season, the Nets are 2-0 against Boston with one of those wins being the massive 28-point Christmas Day blowout in the early parts of the season; Kyrie Irving and quite possibly KD will be looking to earn the season sweep.

For a different perspective on Wednesday’s game, check out Raptors HQ - our sister site covering the Toronto Raptors.

Looking ahead to Friday’s matchup, for all things Boston, head over to our sister site CelticsBlog for fantastic Celtics coverage.