James Harden too much as Nets’ rally falls short in loss to Rockets

HOUSTON — Yes, James Harden victimized Brooklyn. But there was plenty of blame to go around for the Nets, enough culprits that cost them what could’ve been another spectacular comeback in Houston.

Kenny Atkinson waited too long to adjust to Harden’s early dominance and the Nets’ early deficit. Spencer Dinwiddie left too much meat on the bone offensively as the starters looked tired from the get-go in a 108-98 loss to Houston on Saturday before 18,306 at Toyota Center.

“We had a chance. We gave ourselves a chance. But the other side of the coin is I don’t feel like we’re playing very well,” Atkinson admitted. “That’s the second game in a row where I feel like we’re out of sync. I don’t know what it is, we’re not in rhythm right now — especially offensively. We’ve got to get back on track there.”

On Jan. 16 last season, the Nets rallied from eight down with 1:03 in regulation to win in Houston. On Saturday, they trailed by as much as 22 before going ahead 90-89 on a DeAndre Jordan tip-in with 8:55 left. And Theo Pinson — who led a change by the bench — put the Nets up 92-91 on a reverse layup.

But Harden’s floater with 6:51 to play sparked an 8-0 run as the Rockets (22-10) put it away.

Harden had 23 of his game-high 44 points in the first quarter, when Houston took a 42-20 lead. After Atkinson tried a box-and-one to slow him, Harden had “just” 21 points the rest of the night, but the damage was done.

James Harden, who scored 44 points, looks to make a move during the Nets' 108-98 loss to the Rockets on Saturday night.
James Harden, who scored 44 points, looks to make a move during the Nets’ 108-98 loss to the Rockets on Saturday night.NBAE via Getty Images

“Could we have done even a better job getting it out of his hands? You could argue that. Could we have done it earlier? I could see you saying that: Why didn’t you do it from the beginning of the game, get it out of his hands,” Atkinson said. “We waited until we hit three 3s and made the adjustment. We could’ve done it sooner.”

After a horrible display in Thursday’s humbling home loss to the Knicks, the Nets (16-15) acquitted themselves better.

The Nets — trailing 88-72 with 1:35 left in the third — rallied behind Dinwiddie. An 18-1 run gave them a one-point lead in the fourth. But they coughed up eight unanswered points to give it right back.

Dinwiddie had 17 points and 11 assists, while Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince each added 16. But Dinwiddie had five turnovers and shot 6 of 20 overall, a brutal 0-for-7 from deep and just 5 of 11 from the free-throw line.

“Just got to call a spade a spade: I played very terribly offensively. Miss six free throws, had a couple 3s go in and out, all that stuff and just shot really poorly, offensively,” Dinwiddie said. “If those things happen, then we’re saying the offense is right back on track.”

The Nets gave up a 12-0 run in the first quarter to fall behind. A third straight Harden 3 prompted Atkinson to start throwing junk defenses at him: a box-and-one, a triangle-and-two, blitzing him out of man.

He had 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting to hand Houston a 34-18 lead, and the Nets trailed 47-25 after a 3 by Austin Rivers.

The Nets were still down 88-72 with 2:03 in the third on a free throw by Russell Westbrook (23 points, nine boards, seven assists) before their inspired rally was ultimately thwarted.

“There were some effort plays that we didn’t get. There were some physicality plays we normally get and you have to get to win a game like this,” Atkinson said. “I don’t want to be too negative, but we can play a lot better.

“They’ve shown they can do it. We’re just not playing at a high level right now.”

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