Slumping Nets need to get healthy in a hurry
Depleted lineup drops third straight to league-leading Milwaukee
The Nets’ collective “next man up” mentality can only take them so far.
Brooklyn’s injury-depleted roster proved no match for the team with the NBA’s best record Monday night at Barclays Center, resulting in an ugly 113-94 loss to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in front of 16,209 fans on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
Still missing rotation regulars Allen Crabbe (knee), Caris LeVert (foot), Jared Dudley (hamstring) and Spencer Dinwiddie (thumb), the Nets were also sans sharpshooter Joe Harris (sore right hip) when the Bucks (39-13) rolled into Downtown Brooklyn.
Newly minted first-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell scored 18 points, and backcourt mate Shabazz Napier added 15 for the Nets (28-27), who saw their nine-game home winning streak snapped.
Brooklyn has also dropped three in a row for the first time since a season-high eight-game skid from Nov. 21-Dec. 5.
With four tough games on tap prior to next week’s All-Star break, Brooklyn must find a way to stay afloat until Crabbe and LeVert, both of whom were ready to participate in a full practice with the team’s G-League affiliate on Long Island Tuesday, return to the lineup.
“We’ve been finding ways. I think we have good strategies in place until we get everybody back healthy,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson noted after watching his slumping club shoot a dismal 5-of-42 from 3-point range against the Bucks.
“Everybody’s tired right around the All-Star break,” he added. “We just have to recoup. We will have a little practice tomorrow and get ready for Denver on Wednesday.”
After hosting the Nuggets, the Nets, who have dropped four of their last five and are 2-4 since Dinwiddie opted to have surgery on his ailing right thumb, will welcome the Chicago Bulls to Barclays on Friday before visiting Toronto on Monday and Cleveland next Wednesday.
Though they have managed to maintain their hold on the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite their recent malaise, the Nets need to recapture the mojo that saw them rise from 8-18 into playoff contention with the winningest January in franchise history.
“It’s a part of the NBA. I think we are going through a tough stretch,” Atkinson said. “We obviously have some guys out and some guys back and are mixing and matching.”
None of that mixing and matching seemed to affect Antetokounmpo in the least as the MVP candidate had his way with the Nets, amassing game highs of 30 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists to hand Brooklyn its first home loss since Dec. 21.
“It’s forcing coach to really go deep in the bench,” Russell said of the Nets’ ongoing injury bug.
“But you get that caliber of guys back and you’re at another level, so the sooner the better.”
It’s not clear exactly when Crabbe and/or LeVert will be ready to go, but Dinwiddie is still at least a month away from rejoining his teammates after emerging as a candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, and Dudley continues to be an important presence on the Brooklyn bench.
Getting one or the other back before the break would be a godsend to a roster that rolled out the likes of Theo Pinson (10 points) and installed Treveon Graham (seven points, six rebounds) into the starting lineup against arguably the best team in the NBA.
But the Nets found a way earlier this season to shake off that eight-game skid, rebounding to win seven in a row immediately thereafter, and have survived injuries to virtually every key member of the roster.
Doing so again will be quite a chore now that Brooklyn is considered a legitimate postseason contender, rather than a squad opposing coaches opt to rest their players against.
“I think it’s like when we were going through that losing streak, just sticking to our game, sticking to our principles and get through it,” said second-year center Jarrett Allen.
Hitting a few open shots should make a difference too, after Brooklyn went 32.4 percent from the floor and an even more dismal 11.9 percent from long range Monday.
“It’s tough to go 5-for-42 from three,” Atkinson ceded. “We have to figure out how to make the defense pay for crowding the paint.”
Nothing But Net: Russell, who will replace injured Indiana guard Victor Oladipo on the All-Star squad in Charlotte the weekend after next, is a prime example of the type of player development Atkinson is noted for. The 22-year-old point guard came to Brooklyn with a reputation as a player who didn’t get along well with others and had his leadership skills questioned by Lakers team president Magic Johnson has steadily grown into one of the Nets’ most valuable players under Atkinson’s guidance. “If you buy in to what we’re doing and take advantage of an opportunity, there’s rewards,” said Atkinson of Russell’s emergence. “It’s great to see that he’s bought into our total program, from the basketball side to the performance side. It’s great for the organization.” … Rookie Rodions Kurucs, who will be in Charlotte as part of the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge, had a rough night against the ultra-athletic Bucks Monday. He went 2-of-10 from the floor and 1-of-6 from 3-point range for five points while committing two turnovers in 27 minutes.
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