Nets’ second-half fade proves costly in loss to Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Nets just completed a winning road trip, but they missed out on a great one.

After seeming to run out of gas Tuesday night at the tail end of the five-game trip, the Nets blew a double-digit lead in a 121-107 loss to the Thunder at Paycom Center.

Despite completing their western swing with a 3-2 mark, the Nets had every opportunity to make it 4-1, and six wins in their last seven. But they couldn’t hold a 16-point second-quarter lead as they wilted down the stretch.

“They play good together,” Dorian Finney-Smith had warned beforehand of the Thunder. “Mark [Daigneault] got them playing very well. They space out and attack, they’ve got the most field goals in the paint, they play good in transition. They’re a good team.

“They’ve been getting better all year. They’re scrappy, they never give up, they never stop playing. So we’re going to have to bring it; you have to bring it all game, because they aren’t going to stop playing.”

Finney-Smith’s concerns proved prophetic.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. who score a game-high 33 points, goes up for a shot as Dorian Finney-Smith defends during the Nets’ 121-107 loss to the Thunder.

It wasn’t a case of a hangover from their statement win Sunday at West-leading Denver, not after the Nets built a big cushion: 62-46 after a pair of free throws by Spencer Dinwiddie with 1:23 to go before halftime. But that victory may have taken something out of them, because they allowed an 18-3 run over a 4 ¹/₂-minute stretch of the third quarter that their legs just never seemed capable of coming back from.

That blitz flipped an eight-point Nets lead into a seven-point hole. It gave Oklahoma City an 83-76 advantage with 2:42 left in the third that the Nets couldn’t overcome as they fell to 39-30.

Mikal Bridges had a team-high 34 points for the Nets, and Cam Johnson added 23 points.

Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a game-high 35 points, while Lu Dort added 24 points, nine boards and shot 6-for-11 from 3-point range.

“We want to conclude the trip in the right way, trying to get a win,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game. “A lot of problems they present. It starts with [Gilgeous-Alexander] and his ability to get buckets, make shots. To have a guy score 30 and not make a 3 is pretty impressive to show how they play: Very determined to get to the paint, get to their spots.

Mikal Bridges, who had a team-high 34 points, shoots a jumper over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during the Nets' loss.
Mikal Bridges, who had a team-high 34 points, shoots a jumper over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during the Nets’ loss.

“Then they have multiple ball-handlers, whether it’s [Josh] Giddey, [Jaylin] Williams, Dort, it’s across the board. Like size, they’re able to push the pace transition-wise, get into your paint. And if they do miss they’re top 10 in offensive rebounding. So a lot of areas that we’re still struggling with. That’s a challenge for us. So it’ll be a battle of the paint and a battle of the rebounding for sure.”

The Nets lost that battle of the paint, unable to cut off drives.

They spotted the Thunder (34-35) a quick lead right from the opening tap, falling behind 7-0 on a driving reverse by Gilgeous-Alexander just two minutes in. But the Nets promptly seized control — at least for a while, mounting an 18-5 run to take a six-point lead.

Johnson drilled a 3-pointer on a Nic Claxton kick-out, capping the run and putting the Nets ahead 18-12 with 5:37 left in the first quarter.

Dinwiddie’s free throws padded the Nets’ cushion with 1:23 left in the half, and they still led by 10 going into the break. But after holding the Thunder to 2-for-13 shooting from deep in the first half, that changed in the second.

Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 16 points, looks to make a move during the Nets' loss.
Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 16 points, looks to make a move during the Nets’ loss.
NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets conceded the first six points coming out of the locker room, with a Dort 3-pointer cutting the lead to just 64-60. Soon, it disappeared altogether.

A Dinwiddie basket pushed the lead back to 69-63, and Bridges’ baseline dunk made it 73-65 and sent Oklahoma City into a timeout with 7:11 left in the third.

But that momentum did not last.

“They play fast. They create a lot of turnovers,” Royce O’Neale had warned. “So just us taking care of the ball, making the right reads on offense, being disruptive on defense, try to get converted on a fast break. And just playing as a team. That’s our biggest thing right now.”

After Gilgeous-Alexander cut it back to 75-73, he knotted the score on a finger roll with 4:28 left. Then Dort untied it, drilling a 3-pointer off a Giddey feed.

Vaughn went scrambling for a timeout with the Nets down 78-75 with 3:40 remaining in the third, but it was to no avail. Giddey fed Isaiah Joe for a runner that capped the 18-3 blitz, and left the Nets in an 83-76 hole.

The deficit swelled to double digits at 90-80 in the final minute of the third quarter.

“We’re definitely going to have to keep them out of the paint, because they do a good job of getting in the paint and playing off each other,” Dorian Finney-Smith said. “They’re a good team … so we’re going to have to go out here and treat them like we need this win.”