ATLANTA — First the Nets lost their momentum, now they’ve lost their hold on the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Next could be a playoff spot if they don’t get their act together.
Their heads clearly aren’t right, after they were thoroughly outclassed 141-118 by the Hawks. In a game the Nets had to win, the worst team in the Eastern Conference handed them a third straight loss. That, coupled with the Magic’s 136-125 win over the Timberwolves, slid the Nets back into the eighth seed, a half-game back of Orlando.
The 141 scored by Atlanta were the most points the Nets have allowed all season, and the loss was the most damaging.
“We’ve got to find a way to win on the road against a team that’s playing better,” coach Kenny Atkinson said before the game. “We’ve got a good group in there. They always bounce back from tough losses, big losses. We’re playing decently. We just haven’t gotten over the hump the past two games.”
Make that three. And the Wizards are in their rearview mirror, gunning for the eighth and final playoff spot.
A week ago, the Nets had won seven of 10 games and led the Magic by 2 ½ games for the seventh seed. They were also 5 ½ games clear of Washington for the final playoff spot. But this skid has them going from looking at seeding to worrying about survival.
“We all know we have to pick it up. This is about seeding and teams fighting for playoffs,” DeAndre Jordan said before the loss. “This is an important time in us getting ready for the postseason, if that’s where we’re going to be.”
It’s sobering that the Nets have gone from “when” to “if,” but that’s where this week has put them. That’s where they’ve put themselves.
All of their three straight losses have come against losing teams. First they coughed up 74 second-half points — and blew a 19-point third-quarter cushion — at home to the Magic. Then it was a mistake-filled loss at Washington, complete with turnovers Atkinson called “infantile.”
But Friday was far worse. Against a Hawks team they’ve owned — having beaten them eight straight games, the longest run in franchise history — the Nets put up no defensive resistance whatsoever. They allowed 51.5 percent shooting, and 19-of-39 from deep in a horrid performance.
The Nets had swept their earlier three meetings with Atlanta by an aggregate 44 points. They last time they met, they led by as many as 39 en route to a 108-86 win on Jan. 10.
But back then they still had Kyrie Irving, and the Hawks were without Trae Young. Now Irving has joined Kevin Durant on the injured list for the rest of the season, while Young had 22 points and 14 assists. John Collins added a game-high 33 points, and Cam Reddish 26.
The Nets’ porous defense wasted Spencer Dinwiddie’s 24 points and 13 assists.
The Nets used a 15-2 run to jump ahead 29-16 on Jordan’s alley-oop dunk. But after they had used a zone to good effect just one game earlier — a box-and-one to slow Washington’s Bradley Beal — they struggled in the second quarter against Atlanta’s 1-2-2 zone.
Caris LeVert took a seat with 7:37 left in the second quarter and the Nets still leading 43-38. LeVert didn’t check back in and they didn’t have any other answers. They watched Atlanta close on a 30-19 run to flip the Nets’ five-point lead into a six-point deficit at the break.
Up 50-44 after a pair of Dinwiddie free throws, the Nets coughed up 13 unanswered points in a 2:25 blitz. Young hit two free throws to leave the Nets in a 57-50 hole their defense never gave them a chance to climb out of.
The Nets trailed 108-98 through three, and it just got worse in the fourth. Out-rebounded 52-38, the Nets had no answers. Now they head to Miami and Boston as the road trip gets far tougher.