ATLANTA — In the biggest game of the Nets’ season, Kevin Durant gave them the biggest scoring night of his career. And it still wasn’t enough.
The Nets’ 122-115 loss to the Hawks — falling behind and wasting a career-high 55 points from Durant — knocked them down to ninth place in the Eastern Conference. And going cold at the absolute worst possible time down the stretch of the regular season may have just made life so much harder in the postseason.
Durant did everything in his power, shooting 19 of 28, grabbing seven rebounds and hitting a career-high 8 of 10 from deep despite being doubled and blitzed. He had his third 50-point game of the season, the most in a season for a Net and the most of his illustrious career. And the Nets squandered it.
With the Nets (40-38) playing sans Seth Curry, Bruce Brown and Goran Dragic — not to mention Ben Simmons and Joe Harris — Durant had few driving lanes and got no help. Kyrie Irving had 31 points and six assists, but shot just 12 of 32. No other Net cracked double-figures.
Brooklyn tumbled into ninth with just four games left on the slate, a game behind the Hawks — winners of five straight — and only ahead of Charlotte via tiebreaker. And they fell from a double-elimination situation needing just a lone win to clinch a playoff berth to single-elimination and having to win twice to advance.
The play-in begins April 12, but if it started now they’d host the 10th-seeded Hornets needing to win to stave off an ignominious non-playoff season. And even victory would just earn them a date with the loser of the 7-8 tilt (say, Cleveland or Atlanta), needing to prevail again to get the final seed in the East.
It’s hard to overstate how pivotal Saturday was. The Nets were perfectly aware going in, and still got outscored, 37-20, in the second quarter, never leading again. They got within a point in the fourth, but never over the hump.
“I think it’s just a high level of focus and intent and purpose, and start the game with the requisite energy and focus. If we do that, I feel great about our team,” Steve Nash had said beforehand. “So, it’s a big game. But all you can do is go try to play your best. So I just expect our guys to be focused, go out and play and have fun and enjoy playing games that actually mean something.”
The game meant plenty; but it’s doubtful the Nets had much fun.
With the backcourt shorthanded, the Nets used their team-record 42nd different starting lineup of the season. Nine quick Durant points spotted them to an 11-2 lead just over two minutes in; but it didn’t last.
The Nets led 34-29 on an Andre Drummond steal and dunk, but they coughed up 14 unanswered points – much of the run without Durant on the floor and the offensively-challenged lineup. The Nets fell behind, 43-34, before Irving stemmed the tide, but it was too little, too late.
The Nets got within 57-50 on Durant’s free throw with 1:26 left in the half; but they surrendered the final eight points capped by a Danilo Gallinari 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left to go into the locker room down by 15, their biggest deficit of the night.
Durant poured in 19 in the third quarter alone to try to will the Nets back into it, and an acrobatic Irving layup cut it to 92-87 with 7.5 seconds remaining. But Trae Young (team-high 36 points) sliced through the defense to beat the buzzer.
A Durant pullup made it 107-103, and after a Young miss, Johnson made one of two at the stripe to pull the Nets within three 3:14 left.
Irving drove for a floating bank shot to cut the lead to 107-106 with 2 ¹/₂ minutes remaining, but Bogdan Bogdanovic made it three and Young’s floater padded it back to five at 111-106 with 1:31 to play. The Nets never got closer than three, and Irving’s missed 3 with 44 seconds essentially sealed it.