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Kevin Durant’s return spoiled by 16-point collapse to shorthanded Heat, 113-107

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NBA: Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

It was a day marked on every fan's calendar; the return of Kevin Durant. But despite the hope, the depleted Nets went on to spoil Durant’s long-awaited return by blowing a 16-point lead to a Miami Heat team missing Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and PJ Tucker.

“It’s interesting. Those are sometimes NBA games were often sometimes better to have everybody and play against an entire team. That way you stay on guard. Overall, this is a game we should win,” said Jacque Vaughn on losing to the shorthanded Heat Thursday night. “We told our guys that after the game. We should feel disappointed. We should’ve won this game.”

Final score: 113-107. With the loss, Brooklyn falls to .500 on the season (32-32) for the first time since the team was 3-3 in the beginning weeks of the season.

Hope for a win was slowly diminishing and a final 16-point collapse was imminent, but Brooklyn provided a final punch in the closing minutes. The Nets forged a 10-0 run that included a pair of 3-Pointers by Bruce Brown and a pair of key buckets and free throws by Kevin Durant to cut the Heat’s lead to 109-107 entering the final two minutes. In that span and in the final minutes of play, Brooklyn finally strung together a pair of key stops to keep the game winnable.

Bam Adebayo, who scored a team-high 30 points, got away with a push-off, muscling his way against the smaller Nets down low for a contested layup to bring Miami’s lead up to 111-107 with 35.5 seconds left. Out of the timeout, Durant missed a heavily contested baseline jumper with 27.5 on the clock. Brooklyn almost came up with a steal out of a sloppy inbounds pass by Miami but the possession eventually led the Heat back to the free-throw line. The two free throws by Tyler Herro made it a six-point game and after a careless Ners turnover, the Heat dribbled the ball out to finish the contest.

Durant showed no signs of rust in his return game, concluding with a game-high 31 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the field and 2-of-7 shooting from behind the arc. The Nets star grabbed four boards, dished four assists, and swatted one shot as well in his team-high-tying 35 minutes of play.

“I felt great. I’m only going to get more comfortable out there and take more of a load out there too; pause, when I get more games under my belt,” said Durant on how he felt after logging 35 minutes in his return. “I felt solid.”

Brown also put together a strong showing with a season-high 21 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals, and one block in 33 minutes. The Nets swiss army knife is shooting 11-of-21 from 3-Point range in his last nine games. The only other Net to finish in double-figures was Patty Mills, who tallied 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 shooting from deep a refreshing change after some tough nights lately.

Although the ball was moving early for Brooklyn, that didn’t carry over into the second half. Miami’s zone defense gave Brooklyn lots of trouble from sideline to sideline, stagnating the offense throughout the final 24 minutes — a defensive strategy that the Nets know must be added to their repertoire if they’re going to have a successful late-season run.

“They beat us with that zone. They really played well with the zone. It was the pace of the game, especially our triggers were late. We were getting into offense around 15 seconds, and then you make one pass, two passes, you’re playing against the shot clock and put pressure on yourself,” said Goran Dragic on Miami’s zone. “They did an amazing job. Tomorrow is going to be a good teaching day because we have to be prepared if some other teams are playing zone against us. We have to figure out those things.”

Brooklyn dished out a total of 24 assists on 39 made shots but it was once again their turnovers that were very costly in a loss. The Nets coughed up a total of 13 turnovers that translated to 22 points for the Heat. The Nets' largest lead was 16 while the Heat’s largest was 12 points.

“I think our guys were trying hard to make the right play,” said Vaughn on the 13 turnovers. “There are some units out there that haven’t really played together. That’s a part of this process. We’ll get together and continue to put units together. We got to figure this thing out quickly.”

The Nets put out their league-high 36th different starting lineup of the season against the Heat — Curry, Brown, Durant, Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond. Brooklyn got off to a strong start, taking an early 15-8 lead in the opening minutes.

The hot shooting helped Brooklyn throughout the period. Durant heated up out of the first timeout, tallying nine quick points to unlock an offensive burst in a quarter that ended with 35 points. The Nets capped off their scorching opening period with a 12-point lead (the biggest lead after a first quarter since Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers) on 53.8 % shooting from the field and 40.0 % shooting from 3-Point range.

Brooklyn’s sharpshooting carried over into the second but Miami’s offense began to pick up steam. The Nets built their lead to 16 points behind a series of threes by Mills midway through the second. Although the shooting remained strong, Bam Adebayo got rolling down low, scoring eight-straight points for Miami, which followed with a 5-0 burst, trimming the Nets’ lead to 13 (57-46) with 3:50 left, resulting in Vaughn calling a timeout. Miami shot a total of 21 free throws, making 16 of them and playing a factor in their late-quarter comeback.

The Nets weathered Adebayo’s 19-point first half, ending the second with a small Durant (17 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field in 15 first-half minutes) burst to keep the advantage heading into the halftime break. Brooklyn led Miami, 67-60.

“It started going into the second half. We were up 15 or 16 and ended up being a seven-point game. We didn’t take care of the possessions leading into halftime. That kinda carried over a little bit. A little maize rust. They played more zone, slowed us down some,” said Vaughn on where the 16-point collapse stemmed from. “Overall, it started in that second quarter and carried through halftime.”

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Heat to knot up the score in the third. Miami opened the third on an 8-0 burst and after Adebayo blow-by past Drummond for a slam, Miami tied the score at 74 with 7:25 left in the third. On the next possession out of the timeout, the Heat took the lead and followed it up by extending their scoring run to 14-0.

In the midst of the scoring outburst and for the remainder of the third, Brooklyn severely struggled to get clean looks in Miami’s zone defense. The Heat went on to outscore the Nets, 28-17, in the third to take a four-point lead (88-84) into the final quarter of play.

“Overall, it’s something that we’ve seen before when Golden State played against us; triangle and 2 as well. At the end of the day, it’s conceptual basketball,” said Vaughn on Brooklyn’s struggles to create offense in Miami’s second-half-long zone. “We didn’t get into our actions soon enough. We let them slow us down so nothing that we haven’t seen before. We just didn’t react very well.”

Durant started the fourth on the bench after logging team-high 28 minutes through three-quarters of play. Miami didn’t gain much separation while the Nets star took a six-minute breather, and once Durant got back on the floor, it was a hope-saving adjustment that needed more help from his teammates. Miami forged a 14-3 run and after a Brown three, the Nets trailed 109-100 with desperation building to get stops to keep hope alive.

In the end, Brooklyn fell to Miami in the final minute, suffering a six-point defeat for their 18th loss on their home floor (13-18).

“Just to focus on the details every day. Winning basketball games and wanting to win, I don’t even got to say that. That’s always a part of goals, but building championship habits in practice, shootaround, and transferring it to the game is the most important part,” said Durant on what is the most important thing the Nets need to work on in the remaining 18 games of the regular season.

State of the Nets

In a brief discussion with Michael Grady of YES Network, Sean Marks discussed everything from Kevin Durant’s return to Joe Harris’s need for second surgery to Ben Simmons timetable to the status of Nets efforts to get Kyrie back on the court at Barclays Center...

A lot there to digest, some of it agita producing.

Kyrie Irving’s new agent

Shams Charania reported that Kyrie Irving has a new agent, one with whom he’s very familiar...

Although Shams didn’t make the connection, Riley Irving is the wife of Irving’s father Drederick Irving and thus the Nets guard’s stepmother. Riley Irving comes to the role with a background in entertainment. She was most recently the vice president for ad sales at BET, Black Entertainment Television, where she had also been an account executive. Prior to that she worked in New York for Power 105.1 and WINS.

She’ll now be the agent of record when the Nets negotiate Irving’s next contract. He has a $36.9 million player option next year. He could also extend his deal for four years and $187 million. Riley Irving would presumably also rep her stepson in his negotiations for big endorsement money.

What’s next

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets will return to action on Sunday, March 5 when the team travels to TD Garden to play the Boston Celtics. The game is slated to tip at 1:00 p.m. ET.

For a different perspective on Thursday night’s contest, check out Hot Hot Hoops — our sister site covering the Miami Heat.