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Nets fall to Pacers, 128-117, despite 36 points from Kevin Durant

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Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Another blown lead. Another loss.

With the chance to reach .500, the Nets fell short... again. After leading by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Brooklyn Nets coughed up that advantage and fell to the Indiana Pacers, 128-117, to drop to 9-11 on the season.

“Definitely was a momentum shift,” said Jacque Vaughn after the game. “Not sure exactly when that happened, but for me, the overall poise for the whole group, I think that was the most important thing that we lacked a little bit. So whether that was they started a run and we didn’t respond the correct way, they were becoming more the aggressors and kind of shifted everything towards their favor, you’ve got to have poise when you’re trying to win on the road.”

Kevin Durant led the charge for the Nets with 36 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and two blocks. He scored 20 points in the fourth quarter, which largely made up for his poor shooting in the third (he 2-for-10 from the field).

Ben Simmons had another terrific night, dropping 20 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting, along with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. In his last six games, Simmons is averaging better than 15 points and shooting 82% overall and 58.9% from the line.

“When he’s attacking like that, it makes the game easier for myself, for everybody putting that pressure on the defense,” said Nic Claxton about Simmons, “and also what he’s doing on the defensive end.”

The Pacers were led by Tyrese Haliburton and his 21 points and 15 (!!) assists. Buddy Hield dropped 26 points on 5-of-8 from deep, and Myles Turner poured in 21 points and 8 rebounds as well. All five Pacer starters scored double-digit points.

Brooklyn shot better from the field, 3-point line, and free-throw line. They didn’t get dominated on the glass (41-38, Indiana) nor on the fastbreak (16-11, Indiana). No, this one was lost because of Brooklyn’s insistence on fouling. The Pacers took 28 more free throws than the Nets, which accounted for 22 points in Indiana’s favor.

“Yeah, you’ve got to not foul,” said Vaughn. “And so for us, we just got to be disciplined enough you on the road. You can’t expect any calls. So for us, it’s a good lesson to be more disciplined in how we approach the defensive end of the floor.”

Still, things were clicking for the Nets early. Simmons attcked the paint with ferocity, and Royce O’Neale hit two of three outside shots early. Kevin Durant was locked in from the midrange early, hitting silky smooth jumpers over smaller defenders en route to 8 early points. Holistically speaking, the Nets’ ball movement was exceptional. Brooklyn went on a 20-7 run to end the quarter and tossed out 10 assists on 15 made field goals to finish ahead 35-23 after one.

Indiana exploded in the second quarter, cutting Brooklyn’s advantage in half on a 6-0 run after Jacque Vaughn put his bench in. Fortunately, the Nets—behind Ben Simmons—righted the ship and built back the double-digit cushion. Then, Buddy Hield checked in and hit two threes, and Tyrese Haliburton zipped to a pair of layups past Brooklyn’s porous point-of-attack defense. It was Brooklyn’s turn to make a sub, Ben Simmons, who clocked in at the 2-minute mark, and the Nets almost immediately responded with an 8-4 run. Behind this, the Nets lead at halftime, 65-57.

Neither team could miss to start the third quarter. Both teams scored 31 combined points in the first five minutes of play. Hield was the high man for both teams with seven points in the third at the halfway point, and the Pacers whittled Brooklyn’s lead down to three. The Nets finally got something going when Seth Curry hit a pair of threes, one of which came off a terrific bounce pass from Kyrie Irving through a sea of defenders. Curry then hit a two-dribble pull-up midrange shot that danced around the rim before dropping in, giving Brooklyn a ten-point advantage. Haliburton scored 4 quick points to the end quarter, including two off a gorgeous hanging layup over a contest from Joe Harris, and Indiana finished just behind, 94-88, to end the third.

For KD, it was the third — and his performance — that told the tale.

“I feel like the 3rd quarter, I lost the game, I missed so many easy shots, open shots. If I’d have made those shots we would have had more of a cushion going to the fourth,” he said.

The fourth quarter was the Bennedict Mathurin show. The rookie, who was 2-of-11 before the fourth, hit two threes, including a corner shot while falling out-of-bounds off an ATO. He then made a layup and transition bucket plus the foul when Ben Simmons turned the ball over trying to do a behind-the-back dribble. The Pacers started the fourth on a 20-6 run to build a 108-100 lead.

Fortunately for the Nets, KD finally got it going after a slow three quarters. Brooklyn’s superstar forward hit two patented midrangers, a three, and then another three-pointer and the foul. He had that look about him, as Ian Eagle put it.

But the Nets’ defense let their star down. First, the Nets gave up a dunk to Myles Turner on a baseline out of bounds. Then, Brooklyn turned it over inbounding the ball, in what was an ode to the 2020-21 season. Still, Durant kept pouring it in, hitting a floater while falling out of bounds and another short-range two, his Nets down 118-111 with just over three-and-a-half minutes to spare.

And yet, silly mistakes doomed the Nets. Durant picked up a technical yelling at a referee about contact while shooting the ball, and Nic Claxton received a flagrant foul for shoving Tyrese Haliburton after blocking his shot. Those errors, plus a gutsy short-range jumper by T.J. McConnell with the shot clock expiring, gave Indiana a 13-point lead. The Pacers never looked back, winning 128-117.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” said Simmons after the loss. “But at the same time, we gotta focus on Portland now (on Sunday). So move on from this game, get ready for the next one.”

“It’s not a hard basketball game for us,” said Durant. “We have the talent offensively, but defensively and offensive boards, they’re still going to be something we bring up day to day”

The Film Room

Point-of-attack defense remains a problem, and it’s one of the main reasons to sell stock in the Nets (if you even have any, at this point).

For all of the strengths of the Nets defensively—and trust me, there are reasons to be bullish—there have always been flaws in the infrastructure of this team’s construction. Nic Claxton, Kevin Durant, and Ben Simmons make up a ginormous frontcourt—three near seven-footers—and that trio of savvy defenders is a big reason Brooklyn is leading the league in blocks.

But they can’t do everything. Royce O’Neale is at his best guarding larger players, but because he plays alongside this trio as a starter, he is mostly tasked with guarding perimeter threats.

Perimeter threats that are typically too quick for him.

Tyrese Haliburton skates on by Royce here by splitting Brooklyn’s defense, and O’Neale offers no resistance because he just can’t keep pace.

And because Haliburton gave O’Neale so much trouble as a driver, Royce was forced to give Hali—a 41.3% pull-up three-point shooter—a cushion to avoid getting dusted off the dribble. Well, as you can see below, that didn’t work either.

For as great as Ben Simmons is as a defender, he too has always had a weakness guarding smaller, quicker guys... Even in his best defensive seasons, like 2020-21 when he finished as runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Here, Ben is squared up properly against Haliburton with good balance, yet the Pacer point guard gets by him with relative ease just by turning the corner quicker.

The guys that do have the requisite footspeed are too small in stature to really make a difference as defenders. This applies to Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn’s starting lineup and Seth Curry off the bench, and here, T.J. McConnell hits a dagger short-range two-pointer against a contest from Curry that doesn’t really make a difference because of his size.

The worst part about this problem is that there’s no clear answer. Perhaps it comes internally as Ben Simmons shows more and more lateral mobility. But even at his peak, he was still prone to getting lost against zippy creators.

The playoff map presents many teams that could expose Brooklyn for this defensive weakness. Philadelphia with Tyrese Maxey comes to mind. Double that for Cleveland with Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. If the Nets turn into a layup line when it matters, you can kiss their title hopes goodbye.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next

Brooklyn heads home on Sunday for a matinee game against the Portland Trail Blazers. This is, of course, against yet another shorthanded opponent: The Blazers are without Damian Lillard, who is out with a calf strain. Coverage begins on the YES Network at 3:00 PM EST.

It’s the beginning of a seven-game homestand ... and as Kevin Durant said, “essential for our season” in trying to build “great habits.”

For a different perspective of tonight’s game, head to Indy Cornrows, our Pacers sister site.