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Nets fall to Suns as woes without Kevin Durant continue

PHOENIX — Four games without Kevin Durant. Four defeats. 

And no end in sight. 

A national television audience watched the Nets fall 117-112 to the Suns at the Footprint Center on Thursday, digging themselves a Grand Canyon-sized hole before nearly climbing out of it. Or nearly getting carried out by Kyrie Irving. 

Since Durant went down with a sprained right MCL on Jan. 8, the Nets haven’t won a single game — though Irving tried his best in his first game back from a sore right calf. Possibly having to shake off some rust early, he had 30 points on 11-for-27 shooting, nearly pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback. 

Irving ended the third quarter with just nine points on 3-for-16 shooting and a team-worst minus-17 as his Nets trailed by 20. He erupted for 21 on 8-for-11 shooting in the final quarter — nearly outscoring the Suns, who were blitzed 38-23 down the stretch — but it was too late. 

Kyrie Irving defends Mikal Bridges during the Nets' loss to the Suns on Jan. 19.
Kyrie Irving defends Mikal Bridges during the Nets’ loss to the Suns on Jan. 19.
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“We’ve just got to play smarter, that’s it. Our room for error isn’t as big because [Durant is] not in,” Irving had warned. “Just attention to detail, and having a toughness out there, just an awareness that every team is going to see that we’re shorthanded and feel like they can take advantage of us for that night. As competitors we’ve just got to do everything possible to prepare for that. It’ll be a fight.” 

They fought, but too late. 

It was a maddening night, with one scene encapsulating the frustration better than words ever could. Ben Simmons got whistled for his fifth foul with 8:47 left in the third quarter — one multiple veteran scouts agreed was suspect — then got hit with technical from the bench. Seconds later Simmons was ejected, his night over with seven points and six assists. 

With Nets general manager Sean Marks on hand to watch, he told TNT that it was “about how other guys respond without KD.” 

Much has been made about the way the Nets capitulated last season when Durant suffered a MCL injury, going 5-16 to tumble from second place in the Eastern Conference all the way to eighth. And there has been much protestation from these Nets that they are different. But they already have fallen from second to fourth, six games behind Boston and just percentage points ahead of No. 5 seed Cleveland. 

“I’m just worried about this team that we have here,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Who’s in, who’s out, that’s been my message of not worrying about that. [I] will continue to preach that.” 

Marks told TNT that he felt this time minus Durant “is a great challenge for everyone on the Nets organization.” So far, consider the challenge unmet. 

Deandre Ayton dunks during the Suns' win over the Nets' on Jan. 19.
Deandre Ayton dunks during the Suns’ win over the Nets’ on Jan. 19.

After briefly taking a 12-6 lead when Simmons found Royce O’Neale for a 3-pointer, Brooklyn was still clinging to a 19-18 edge after an Irving driving layup with 5:20 left in the first. It didn’t last. 

The Nets promptly coughed up a 12-2 run, with Cam Johnson — making his return after missing 37 consecutive games — capping it with a 3-pointer. 

It left Brooklyn in a 30-21 hole with 2:36 remaining in the first. They showed a concerning lack of fight as the nine-point deficit swelled to 24. 

A Mikal Bridges and-one pushed the Phoenix lead to 81-57 with 7:13 to play in the third. 

Kyrie Irving shoots during the Nets' loss to the Suns on Jan. 19.
Kyrie Irving shoots during the Nets’ loss to the Suns on Jan. 19.

A fourth-quarter blitz by Irving pulled the Nets within five. He found Nic Claxton (20 points, 11 rebounds) for a dunk to make it 103-98, and his floating bank shot pulled the Nets within 105-100 with 3:56 remaining. 

Irving’s jumper 28 seconds later had Brooklyn down just 107-102. His step back 3-pointer cut it to 113-110 with 11.5 seconds left, and Phoenix’s Damion Lee missing one of two free throws gave Brooklyn a sliver of hope. 

Claxton quickly dunked and Bridges (28 points) made just one of two again, leaving Brooklyn within 115-112. But Claxton got fouled and missed both with 6.6 seconds left in regulation, and there would be no overtime. 

Deandre Ayton scored 24 for Phoenix.

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