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Nets without Kevin Durant AND Ben Simmons collapse in 4th quarter, lose to Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The young, fun, and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, coming off a back-to-back, stormed into town against a group of rested Brooklyn Nets on Sunday evening and left with a 112-102 win. The Nets are now 0-2 with Kevin Durant out of the lineup Friday and were also without Ben Simmons, a late scratch due to back pain. entered the night holding onto the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind the Celtics with a record of 27-14. Afterwards, they’re still in the second seed, but only a half game ahead of the Bucks.

This was a real bellwether game for the Nets and their upcoming stretch without superstar Durant. Oklahoma City is a frisk, confident club whose point-differential has recently turned positive after victories in four of their last five outings.

But this is still a basketball club whose brass and fans alike entered the year with their sights on the No. 1 overall draft selection and French teenage phenom Victor Wembanyama. OKC entered the evening in the twelve seed, spots away from even a bid to the Western Conference Play-In tournament. But that didn’t stop them from playing a game with energy and ultimately resilience.

Jacque Vaughn’s rotations reflected the relatively transitional stage Brooklyn finds itself without Durant, the man they call “7.” Making things more problematic, Ben Simmons was ruled out with back soreness a half-hour before tip-off (after being suddenly downgraded to “questionable” pre-game.) That prompted a couple of rotational changes from Brooklyn’s head coach.

“He went through warmups [and] felt some tightness,” Vaughn said postgame. “that was the report I had and then he was a late scratch.” Simmons will travel with the team to San Antonio “be on the trip with us so hopefully it’s one game,” Vaughn added. One positive: Simmons will not have to undergo an MRI, a further indication that the Nets don’t see the soreness as a big issue.

It was Simmons 11th missed game of the season. He underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc on May 4, shortly after last season ended.

Edmond Sumner, normally Brooklyn’s ninth man who has seen sparse playing time in recent outings, burst into the starting lineup to replace Simmons’ ball-handling and (mostly theoretical) rim presence. Markieff Morris also got some early minutes to help replace Simmons rebounding.

The first half followed a pattern where the Thunder controlled play, but Brooklyn would never allow OKC’s lead to extend past six or seven points, always keeping their opponents within arms’ length. The Nets consistently generated open looks but couldn’t convert at a rate that allowed them to jump ahead by any more than a few points.

The Nets finally got hot in the third quarter and slowly built their lead to double digits but a fiery run from the Thunder saw Brooklyn’s lead cut to five with twelve minutes to play. The Thunder momentum carried into the final frame of action, where Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and hot shooting from Isaiah Joe manufactured their own double-digit lead. The Nets looked to shoot themselves back into the game but a 2-of-13 fourth quarter from deep left the Barclays Center crowd heading to the exits with their heads down. As in the Boston loss, there were good looks, but the basket was lidded. Bottom line: the Nets got outscored, 37-22, in the fourth.

“Tonight, it seemed like we just missed good shots,” Seth Curry said post-game. “But [in the] fourth quarter, it felt like our offense stalled. We weren’t putting the ball in the basket, I think it kind of wore on us mentally on the other end.”

Shooting variance in the NBA happens. During Brooklyn’s 18-2 stretch they shot over 40% from 3-point range, tonight they dipped under 30%. “[You] can’t just rely on Kyrie to make tough shots — at the same time, we created good shots tonight,” Curry asserted. “[We] got in the lane, passed the ball. Sometimes it’s just a make or miss game.”

Both Curry and Vaughn noted that excelling on defense — and area in which the Nets have strived during their winning streak — becomes more difficult with offensive struggles.

“It is harder, mentally and physically because Kevin does save you at times and give you a bucket, so now your defense is set, Vaughn said. “That’s the challenge for this group is they have to dig in and have a mental fortitude greater than before.”

“We’ve got to be our best in the fourth quarter, especially offensively because guys put pressure on us defensively in transition when we miss,” Curry added.

Joe Harris had an especially poor outing, being off the mark on multiple open corner threes that zapped any momentum. Harris finished with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting in 27 minutes, including 2-of-8 marksmanship from behind the arc.

Irving struggled shooting the ball as well for the second-straight game, connecting on just seven of his 20 attempts from the field and being off the mark on all but one 3-pointer. He finished with just fifteen points, his third lowest total of the season.

“I’ll continue to prepare the best way I know how and just continue to be a better example for the guys in the locker room,” Irving said post-game. He also dissed speculation that the Nets are following last year’s script when the Nets went 5-16 — including 11 straight losses — after KD went down. “Well I’m consistently in the lineup, that helps. We also don’t have anyone who is halfway in in the locker room.”

“Invite the growth that can happen here. Guys can definitely fill in some shoes, play some different roles, and it gives us a chance to really grow as individuals,” Irving said. “Some guys have been in this position, some guys have not. It was all glory, glory last week when we were winning game after game and now we’re answering questions about potentially struggling.”

There were bright spots for the Nets: Nic Claxton had 17 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks to go with 7-of-10 shooting. Curry ended the game with 23 points, hitting on 3-of-8 threes. The Nets also won the rebounding battle, barely, 51-50, but surrendered 21 turnovers.

For OKC, three players finished with 20 or more points: Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddy both had 28, tied for Giddey’s career high, and Luguentz Dort 22.

Milestone Watch

The milestones were mostly about Nic Claxton.

  • Claxton now has an eight-game streak where he’s blocked three or more shots. Longest streaks of games with three or more blocks in franchise history:

-11 - Shawn Bradley - March 1996

-11 - Shawn Bradley - Feb. 1996

-8 - Nic Claxton - Dec. 2002 - Jan. 2023 (active)

The eight-game streak is also the longest in the NBA thus far this season.

  • Claxton (17 points, 13 rebounds) has recorded his team-high 12th double-double of the season. He posted five double-doubles in his first three seasons combined.
  • Seth Curry (23 points) recorded his sixth 20-point game of the season (all off the bench).
  • The Thunder has won 10 straight games in the city of New York against the Knicks/Nets. OKC last lost in the city on December 16, 2017 — 1,856 days ago. (H/T to Joe Mussatto,)
  • If Ben Simmons had played, the game would have featured four Australian-born players: Simmons, Patty Mills, Josh Giddey and Kyrie Irving.

Honoring Dr. King

Sunday was Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. He would have been 94 years old he had not been assassinated in March 1968. The Nets included a number of MLK-related themes before and during the game, including this commentary prior to the game by Seth Curry.

In a video shown on the Barclays Center scoreboard, Nets’ retirees Buck Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, and Otis Birdsong spoke of King’s legacy and The KBT Temple Praise choir sang both “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as The Black National Anthem, and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In addition, members of the Nets Black Alliance Network were shown reflecting on what Dr. King’s legacy means to them...

Later Monday, the Long Island Nets will take to the floor wearing special MLK jerseys.

A deadline passes

Sunday was the first day that Nic Claxton can be traded ... not that the Nets have any plans to deal one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the year. His deadline is later than others in that he received a big raise back in July when he signed his two-year, $20 million deal. With that, all the Nets players can be dealt ... but one. Kessler Edwards must agree to any trade. It’s a function of how he was signed in the off-season, as Bobby Marks reported over the weekend. He is one of 18 such players.

Giddey disses Claxton as ‘too small’

Josh Giddey went there when after he got by the NBA’s best shot blocker, he turned toward Nic Claxton and gave the “too small” sign.

Dru Smith on the bench

After scoring 13 points and dishing out six assists in 33 minutes Saturday night on Long Island, the Nets new two-way, 6’3” point guard Dru Smith was in Brooklyn Sunday, meeting with the Nets coaching staff and players. Jacque Vaughn said he got to talk with Smith after a workout Sunday morning. He will wear No. 9 in both Brooklyn and Long Island.

No word on whether Smith will travel with Brooklyn or stay home and play some with Long Island. the G League Nets play the Grand Rapids Gold at Nassau Coliseum Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.

As Sponge Bob might say...

The Nets kept fans advised on the Giants playoff game in Minnesota with every touchdown scored by Big Blue.

What’s next?

Next up for Brooklyn will be the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday as the first stop on an eleven-day road trip. The game is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET and will air on YES Network.