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Play-In Bound: Kevin Durant’s career-high 55 points not enough as Nets fall to Hawks, 122-115

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Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets have officially dropped into the Play-In Tournament, and it came on the night Kevin Durant set new career highs in points and 3-pointers.

The Nets (40-38) suffered a uniquely disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks (41-37), falling 122-115, at State Farm Arena Saturday night. With the loss, Brooklyn dips into the 10th seed and has punched a ticket to the Play-In Tournament on April 12. They will now need to fight their way into the 2022 NBA Playoffs.

The Nets started the day tied for ninth place, then moved into eighth after the Hornets got hammered by the 76ers, then dropped two seed as a result of the loss to the Hawks. The Nets hold tiebreakers over the Hawks and Cavaliers, who are currently in seventh, but not the Hornets. There are four games left vs. the Rockets, Knicks, Cavaliers and Pacers.

“I can’t really sugarcoat it. The positives are that we stuck together. We could have given in. We could’ve thought it wasn’t our night. We found a way to cut it to three with a couple of minutes left, but we didn’t play a great game and not enough guys played well,” said Steve Nash after the 122-115 loss.

With Kyrie Irving scoring 31, the two active members of the “Big Three” scored 75 percent of the Nets total. The Nets were undermanned, particularly in the backcourt with three guards — Goran Dragic (COVID-19 symptoms), Seth Curry (ankle soreness) and Bruce Brown (flu) all out. Curry was a late scratch.

Here’s some of KD’s highlights...

Brooklyn fell behind by 15 points midway through the third quarter and with Durant (55 points on 19-of-28 shooting from the field and 8-of-10 shooting from 3-point range (career-high) in 42 minutes) getting little to no help on the offensive end, he took matters into his own hands. His 19-point third quarter takeover got the Nets back within striking distance. Entering the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Durant finally got some help and the Nets forged a 13-0 run to trim their deficit to only a point (107-104) with 2:20 left.

“Every loss is deflating. I ain’t even worried about that. [I’m] just mad at the loss. I’m glad I shot the ball well. I shot eight threes; a career-high. I wish we would’ve came out with the W just by doing the little stuff,” Durant said. “My points are going to come. My shots are going to come. But the little stuff we got to do and be on the same page with.”

After a near six-minute review by the officials to confirm a 3-pointer by Kevin Huerter hit the rim, Atlanta got the ball back and Trae Young’s nine-foot floater put the Hawks up 112-108 with 55.2 seconds left. On the other end of the floor, Kyrie Irving (31 points on 12-of-32 shooting overall and 7-of-14 shooting from behind the arc in a game-high 44 minutes) missed a 26-foot three, and Young (36 points, six boards, and 10 assists in 35 minutes) scored a 30-foot triple to put the dagger in the win for Atlanta with 23.5 seconds left on the game clock. Durant finger-rolled in a quick two points for Brooklyn out of the timeout to make it a 116-110 game with 19.8 left but the Hawks sealed the contest with their free throws.

“For us, we’re cleaning up some big, big gaps in our offense and defense when we don’t play well. When we do play well and when we’re clicking, we look like a totally different ball club. We just got to find that consistency, and I know we will,” Irving said. “Time is not on our side again, but I feel confident in our group that we’re going to be able to do what we need to do.”

Brooklyn's star-studded duo of Durant and Irving combined for 86 of the Nets’ 115 points in the loss. Outside of the duo and Durant’s stellar career-high scoring performance, there was little help on that end of the floor. No other Nets finished in double-figures while the bench only compiled 12 points. The Nets finished the loss shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 45.9 percent from 3-Point range, dishing only 19 assists on their 42 made shots.

“I can’t tell you that,” said Nash on why the supporting cast didn’t step up offensively. “We had some really good looks. We didn’t make them We had some layups we didn’t make. It’s one of those nights, unfortunately. Not our best outing. We have to regroup, take tomorrow off, and come back ready to keep building. We got four big games left, and we’ve been playing good basketball recently.”

More than anything, the foul differential and the over-aggressive fouling early in quarters burned Brooklyn the most — 37-of-49 shooting from the charity strike for Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Nets only went to the line 19 times, shooting an inefficient 73.7 percent (14-of-19).

“I think we did solid, but just fouling. Putting our hands in there, reaching and being too aggressive,” said Durant on the Nets’ fouling troubles. “That’s two games in a row it's like that. We be having guys bottled up, great defense, and we end up fouling right at the end. If we want to grow and be a better team, then that type of stuff can’t happen. That’s just the game. They got in the bonus early, which took away our physicality a bit of the defensive side and they capitalized.”

The Nets put out their 42nd different starting lineup of the season (Durant, Irving, Patty Mills, Kessler Edwards, and Andre Drummond) against the Hawks Saturday night. Brooklyn quickly forged a 14-4 burst to open the contest. Atlanta stormed back with their own 12-7 run to tighten things back up midway through the first quarter.

Brooklyn’s superstar duo, led by Durant with 15 points, scored 20 of the team’s 30 first-quarter points, but the Nets failed to gain separation in the first. Brooklyn’s perimeter defense held Atlanta to 2-of-10 shooting from deep but at the end of one, the Nets were holding on to a 30-28 lead.

The Hawks had the Nets' number in the opening minutes of the second. Nash put out a unique five — a five that included Drummond, James Johnson, and Blake Griffin on the floor. While Durant was getting a breather on the bench, Atlanta attacked the basket and sparked a dominant 14-0 run to grow a 10-point lead. When Durant checked back into the contest at the 6:19 mark, he patched up some of the Nets woes but the offensive help from the supporting cast wasn’t there.

The Brooklyn superstar (25 first-half points) got the team within seven points (57-50) but it was all Hawks in the frame. The Hawks kept their foot on the gas pedal, and despite the run expanding to 24-7, Atlanta’s largest lead of the quarter was 15 points — their lead at halftime (65-50) — after ending the first half on a 6-0 burst to top off Brooklyn’s horrible defensive quarter. A huge factor that propelled Atlanta’s powerful second quarter was free throws. The team concluded the half shooting 22-of-30 from the charity strike, compared to Brooklyn’s sluggish effort getting to the rim (7-of-11).

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It didn’t get much better in the third for Brooklyn until Durant took matters into his own hands. The lackluster defense prolonged throughout the quarter but the offense, led by an offensive exhibition from who else, chipped away at the deficit.

KD poured in 19 points in the third quarter to bring him up to 44 points through three quarters of play. He got some help out from Irving at the tail end of the period with a pair of triples but even Durant’s offensive takeover couldn’t get Brooklyn over the hump. At the end of the third, the Nets trailed by seven points (94-87).

The Nets came very close to finally getting over the hump behind the play of Durant but the Hawks had an answer for every Brooklyn bucket. After cutting the deficit to five points, Atlanta revived their urgency with Young on the bench, forging an 11-0 run to bring their lead back up to double-digits. At the 5:53 mark, the Nets trailed 107-98.

Brooklyn came within three points in the final minutes of play but Young’s 30-foot triple that was followed up by a 9-foot push shot put the icing on the defeat in the final seconds of play.

“It’s disappointing. Our guys are disappointed. They know we can play better. We can’t make excuses. We’ve been hurt all the time so you got to be ready to play,” Nash said. “You got to find a way. If you’re out of the rotation or get in the rotation, that goes for the guys that are in the rotation. Just raising our level and fine margins. We played as poorly as we could’ve played and it’s a three-point game with two minutes left. Too many errors that cost us.”

Pundits on Patty Mills

Bobby Marks of ESPN and John Schuhmann of NBA.com took a look at Patty Mills slow downhill slide during the game with Marks noting that Mills may very well have been overworked earlier in the season when Kyrie Irving wasn’t playing at all in December and only on the road in January...

Mills had perhaps his worst game of the season Saturday, going scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting, including 0-of-5 from deep. In the month of March, Mills averaged 7.1 points, about half of what he had averaged earlier in the year. He also had shooting splits of 38/36/100 but took only three free throws in one game.

He is not the only one in a shooting slump. Kyrie Irving is in the midst of one as well. After putting up games of 50 and 60 points — and averaging 43.8 points in a four-game stretch, he’s had a tough time, perhaps the result of transitioning from road-only schedule to one that has him eligible for all games. As Kristian Winfield wrote, the last few games have not been pretty.

The numbers speak for themselves: Irving shot just 9-of-22 in the Nets’ one-point overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks; 7-of-18 in a too-close-for-comfort seven-point win over the Detroit Pistons; 6-of-22 in his first home game of the season — a loss to the Charlotte Hornets — and 4-of-11 in the Nets’ road clobbering of the Miami Heat.

That’s 38 makes on 105 field goal attempts and 17-of-45 on threes in his last five games. For those who aren’t the best at mental math, that’s 36% from the field and 38% from downtown.

Milestone Watch

Not only was Kevin Durant’s 55 points, his career high. It was also the third highest point total in a Nets franchise history, behind Kyrie Irving’s 60 points last month and Deron Williams 57 points, the previous record, set in 2012.

It was also the most points ever scored at State Farm Arena, the Hawks home.

The 86 points he and Kyrie Irving scored Saturday did not represent the biggest 1-2 scoring punch KD’s ever been part of. In 2014, he and Russell Westbrook combined for 91 while in OKC.

Although he won’t qualify for the NBA leader boards because of his missed time due to injury, Durant is now averaging 30.1 ppg. If he qualified, that would be good for second place behind LeBron James among top scorers this season. He hasn’t averaged more than that in his career. In his third season, 2009-10, KD also averaged 30.1 ppg.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next

Sacramento Kings v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets will return to action on Tuesday, April 5 when the team hosts the Houston Rockets at Barclays Center. The game is slated to tip at 7:30 p.m. ET and is the first game of a back-to-back.

For a different perspective on Saturday night’s game, check out Peachtree Hoops — our sister site covering the Atlanta Hawks.