One game after the Nets’ Big 3 posted their most impressive win together since Kyrie Irving returned last week from COVID exile, they were down to just one superstar Thursday night against the Thunder.
On the one-year anniversary of the trade with the Rockets that brought James Harden to Brooklyn, he couldn’t front a lineup without Irving (due to New York City’s COVID vaccination mandates) and a resting Kevin Durant to victory on the Nets’ home court.
Harden’s 26 points and nine assists weren’t nearly enough as the road-weary and undermanned Nets were pounded, 130-109, by the Thunder at Barclays Center for their sixth loss in nine games.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander netted 33 points with 10 rebounds and nine assists and Luguentz Dort scored 27 for Oklahoma City, which led by as many as 22 points in the third quarter and by 17 entering the fourth.
Harden connected on just seven of 22 attempts from the floor, but he drained a pair of 3-pointers early in the fourth to key a 13-4 spurt, capped with a lefty drive by Cam Thomas (21 points) to close within 104-96 with 8:28 remaining.
The Thunder (14-27) responded with long-range buckets from rookie Josh Giddey (19 points), Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander to push the lead back to 18 with 5:30 to go.
Before the game, coach Steve Nash stopped short of agreeing with the suggestion that his Nets (26-15) needed a high-scoring night of 40 points of more from Harden without Irving and Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer.
“I don’t ever really say those types of things. But I will want James to be aggressive, to make plays, to put pressure on the defense. And I think James is probably thinking the same thing,” Nash said. “So, he’ll relish the opportunity to try to pick up his teammates and prove that they can win this game regardless of who’s in the lineup and who’s not.
“And for me, as long as he continues to improve the way he has over the course of this year, and stays very aggressive and attack-minded, that will make me happy regardless of if he has 25 or 40.”
The Nets also were still without bigs Nic Claxton (hamstring) and LaMarcus Aldridge (foot), so rookie center Day’Ron Sharpe made a second consecutive start. But he followed his career-best 20-point effort in Chicago on Wednesday with a quiet game, finishing with four points in 20 minutes.
The Nets looked every bit like an undermanned squad playing its fourth game in five nights in allowing the Thunder to pour in 70 points while nailing 11 of 24 from long distance in the first half (20-for-45 overall) and carrying a 19-point advantage into intermission.
Gilgeous-Alexander personally accounted for a 12-0 run in the first quarter, while also scoring 16 straight points for Oklahoma City at one point in the period. He finished the first half with 21 points and seven assists, while Dort netted 19 and Mike Muscala nailed three triples and had 11 points.
Harden paced the Nets with 16 in the half, but he missed eight of 12 shots through two quarters. The other Nets starters — Sharpe, Kessler Edwards, Bruce Brown and DeAndre’ Bembry — totaled eight points before intermission.
“For sure, it’s not just the rookies. There’s a lot of guys that are going to play that haven’t played recently. Great opportunity for them,” Nash said beforehand. “We’ve had a difficult stretch here with travel. It’s important that we find a way to compete and try to win this game and really show the character and toughness it takes to get through this.”
The Nets closed a 22-point hole to 10 in the third quarter, with David Duke Jr. (13 points) nailing a couple of long-range shots and Brown also contributing six points in the session. But Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley (16 points) combined for 11 in a 15-8 run to close the quarter for a 100-83 game entering the final period.