The Nets got a chance Tuesday night to measure where they stand physically against the always-tough Heat, the NBA gold standard for grit.
They can’t like how they measured up.
The Nets were bullied on the court and battered on the boards. And by the time it was over, Miami had handed them a galling 106-93 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 17,732 fans at Barclays Center.
“For sure, I think they’re very competitive and their additions have been I think well-aligned with their physicality and culture. They’re going to pose a great challenge for us,” Nets head coach Steve Nash had cautioned beforehand. “It’s really great for our guys to face that type of defense and high-IQ defense and a team that plays physically. It’s a great combination and will definitely test our team.”
It was a test the Nets failed miserably.
Kevin Durant had 25 points, 11 rebounds and played solid defense against the Heat’s Jimmy Butler, but James Harden, who had 14 points and seven rebounds, was the only other Net with even four boards.
The Nets were outrebounded 62-42, and the Heat held a dominant 31-4 edge in second-chance points.
That’s the kind of disparity the Nets could almost get away with if Kyrie Irving were playing and the so-called Big 3 were providing them with an overabundance of talent. But with Irving out indefinitely, and Harden still playing his way into shape, they had little chance to beat a bolstered Miami team.
Durant held Butler to 6-for-18 shooting, but Bam Adebayo finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, and was one of five Heat players with at least seven boards. Miami newcomer Kyle Lowry ran the show seamlessly.
“They’re the same in terms of their philosophy, selflessness they play with on both ends, tenacity that they play with. They’re just a tough team,” Joe Harris said. “They’re always that way. Scramble a lot defensively, very physical, and then really try to make you work on the defensive end; they have a good offense.”
The Nets trailed 41-29 with 7:07 left in the first half after Lowry found Butler for a cutting finger roll. They did mount a rally, started and ended by Harden. His step-back 3-pointer stanched the bleeding, and — after Bruce Brown stole the ball from Tyler Herro — Harden found Blake Griffin for a spectacular alley-oop. The veteran big man converted the dunk through contact, and his free throw put the Nets ahead 51-49 a little more than 30 seconds before the break.
The Nets held Miami to 4-for-15 shooting (0-for-4 from deep) with three turnovers over the final seven minutes of the first half to head into the locker room with that two-point lead.
A Durant 3-pointer followed by Harris’ record-breaking 3-pointer 51 seconds into the second half gave the Nets a 57-49 cushion. But they squandered it.
The Nets surrendered 14 unanswered points. They fell behind 63-57 on a Duncan Robinson 3-pointer, subjected to chants of “Let’s go Heat!” Let’s go Heat!” in their own building. And even though they pulled within one on another Harris 3 with six minutes to go in the third, they never regained the lead.
Harden continued to struggle physically. He was beaten downcourt twice on defense in the first half for Heat breakaways, and he was blocked at the rim in the fourth.
His lack of mobility has been telling. Harden came in averaging just three free throws a game, down from 7.3 last season and 8.7 for his career. And his average speed of just 3.63 mph was the slowest of anybody in the league who had logged more than three minutes. The next worst was 76ers center Joel Embiid.
Nash attributed the lack of free throws to a combination of NBA rule changes and the aftereffects of hamstring woes.
“I think a little bit of both,” Nash said. “I think it’s an adjustment to the officiating. They’ve drawn a new line, so getting accustomed to that is one part of it.
“And the other part of it is he’s just played such little basketball for the last six months that it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a period of time that he needs to play and adapt and kind of refine his rhythm and groove and all that. So, I think the both are relevant and you need to just be patient with him and allow him time to get back to his best.”