Nets stumble after Kobe’s death
Bryant’s passing, defeat to Knicks took toll on Brooklyn players
The Nets were one of 16 teams that participated in a game just hours after the tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others aboard a helicopter in Calabasas, California on Sunday morning.
And to a man, Brooklyn players confessed that they just weren’t up to it.
“You look around the locker room before the game, it was hard to prepare, hard to get ready,” Nets veteran sharpshooter Joe Harris revealed after Brooklyn dropped a 110-97 decision to the Knicks in front of 17,831 fans at a sedate and somewhat gloomy setting inside Madison Square Garden.
“Mentally you’re just in a bit of a fog. Everybody is feeling sick,” Harris added.
Nets superstar Kyrie Irving, who scored 45 points in a slump-busting win at Detroit the night before, warmed up prior to what turned out to be Brooklyn’s 13th loss in the past 16 games.
But Irving was unable to play in the game due to the death of his friend and left the Garden before tip-off.
The rest of the Nets looked like they were simply going through the motions for most of the evening, and even the near-capacity crowd was barely able to muster a cheer, whether they were rooting for the Knicks or Brooklyn.
“It was an emotional locker room. It was a quiet locker room,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said.
“No one spoke for whatever, three hours before we tipped off. No one really spoke. Sometimes there are no words and I didn’t have any words to console them.”
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the most dominant players of his era, was an inspiration to several Brooklyn players, especially L.A. native Spencer Dinwiddie.
Bryant last visited Barclays Center on Dec. 21, sitting court side and watching Dinwiddie pour in 39 points in a come-from-behind 122-112 win over Atlanta before telling his protege that he was “playing like an All-Star.”
“I was born in (1993); he was drafted in 96,” Dinwiddie noted. “I grew up in South-Central Los Angeles. He was everything to my generation. There was a whole generation of kids, L.A. kids — (he’s) global obviously, but, like, that was our childhood.”
The Knicks were equally shocked by the news of Bryant’s passing.
“Guys were just kind of out of it,” Brooklyn native and Knicks power forward Taj Gibson confessed.
Though Bryant’s death is sure to cast a pall over players, coaches and fans for the next several weeks, the Nets (19-26) must find a way to play better if they hope to avoid falling out of playoff contention.
Brooklyn, which fell a season high-tying seven games below .500 with Sunday’s painful loss, is just two games in front of Chicago (19-30) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday night’s meeting with Detroit at Barclays Center.
The Pistons are 3 ½ games behind Brooklyn, and will be eager to snap a three-game losing skid when they show up on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush, especially after a putrid performance in Monday’s 115-100 home loss to Cleveland.
“We talk about, you know, Kobe this, Kobe that,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Believe me, rest his soul, he would be embarrassed how we (played), our non-compete level.”
Irving, who has participated in six of the Nets’ eight games since his return from a right-shoulder impingement that kept him out for the previous two months, should be back on the Brooklyn hardwood against the Pistons.
As for the rest of the Nets, getting back to normal will be critical to their drive toward a second straight post-season appearance.
“It was kind of just like everybody was in a daze,” Nets guard Garrett Temple said after Sunday’s loss.
“I know I was in a daze. You try to listen to the game plan, but obviously you’ve got something else weighing on your mind. And it wasn’t just one person. It was, like I said, the whole team.”
Atkinson, who was tearful throughout his pre- and post-game pressers Sunday, offered some simple advice to his players as they left the Garden following an emotional day.
“Kenny reiterated to us: ‘Make sure you go home, spend time mentally recuperating, reach out to the people that you love,'” Harris said. “Those are the things that are important.”
Nothing But Net: The last game Bryant participated in here in Brooklyn was on Nov. 6, 2015 during his farewell campaign. The 18-time NBA All-Star and two-time Finals MVP scored a team-high 18 points that night to lead the Lakers to a 104-98 victory over the Nets at Barclays Center. … Dinwiddie led the Nets with 23 points in Sunday’s defeat and Taurean Prince added 14 points. … Brooklyn will play four of its next five games at Barclays, hosting Chicago here Friday in what could be a critical game for playoff positioning down the stretch. The Nets will also welcome Phoenix and Golden State at home on Feb. 3 and 5, respectively, after visiting Washington on Saturday night.
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