There were excuses everywhere, the largest a 7-footer on the bench in street clothes. Kevin Durant is hurt. Seth Curry sat out with a bum knee on a back-to-back. Ben Simmons’ knee kept him out for much of the second half. The Nets were clearly exhausted after a draining loss in Philadelphia the night prior and on the heels of a five-game road trip.
However they could try to justify it, the Nets were outplayed by a team that holds the Eastern Conference’s worst record.
The well-rested and young Pistons out-hustled and outlasted the Nets, 130-122, in front of 17,732 at Barclays Center on Thursday, when the Nets dropped their sixth game of eight without Durant. They will hope they did not lose Simmons for extended time, too.
The Nets (29-19) reached deep into their reserves — both metaphorical and literal, dusting off out-of-rotation Patty Mills and Cam Thomas — and cut a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to five with a minute left, but they found no more gas (or much scoring behind Kyrie Irving and Nic Claxton).
Saddiq Bey, who scored 25 points, drives on Joe Harris during the Nets’ 130-122 loss to the Pistons.Getty Images
“We exerted a lot of energy [Wednesday] night to try to give ourselves a chance to win the Philly game, and so now the mental resolve around mustering up enough energy to get it done tonight,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said prior to the game. “It might not look pretty, but the objective is to get it done.”
It wasn’t pretty, and they failed the objective. The Nets disappeared in the third quarter against a Detroit squad (13-37) that had dropped four straight.
The Pistons seized control in the third, scoring the first five points of the period on their way to opening an 11-point edge. The Pistons, behind young players such as Saddiq Bey (25 points) and Jaden Ivey (16 points and eight assists), got wherever they wanted against a Nets defense that sprouted holes.
Kyrie Irving, who scored 40 points, shoots a floater during the Nets’ loss.NBAE via Getty Images
The Pistons had not played since Monday and it showed, winning plenty of loose-ball battles in the second half. The Nets’ legs grew heavier as the game got longer, and they also had fewer legs to turn to.
Simmons was pulled with 6:40 to go in the third quarter and did not return due to left knee soreness — the same knee that has kept Simmons out for a few pockets of the season, including five of six games in late November and early December.
Irving led the Nets with 40 often spectacular points, draining six 3-pointers, finishing with either hand while suspended in air and often finding Claxton (a career-high 27 points) for alley-oops. Irving, who was named an All-Star starter shortly before tipoff, is the fourth player in the Nets’ history in the NBA to register 30-plus points in five straight games, joining Durant, Stephon Marbury and John Williamson.
Former Knick Alec Burks, making a move on Markieff Morris, scored 20 points for the Pistons.USA TODAY Sports
But beyond Edmond Sumner’s 24 points, the Nets could not find other scorers and could not stop the Pistons, who shot 50.5 percent from the field and put eight scorers in double-digits.
Simmons, whose inability to be aggressive offensively has taken the spotlight since Durant’s injury, was held scoreless prior to the injury during a game in which he could not find his game. He opened the contest by airballing a hook, and on the ensuing possession, drove and tried to connect with Claxton, a poor pass that became a turnover.
When Durant was healthy, Simmons was asked to be the Nets’ Draymond Green: a versatile, excellent defender with great court vision and no jump shot. Simmons embraced the role but had been unable to accept a larger one.
The more Simmons struggles, the more questions will surface about his mental health, which, along with a back issue, kept him off the court last season. Now there will be questions about his knee, too.