Nets crash back down to earth after playoff whispers start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While his Nets spoke about how big their home-and-home against the Hornets was for postseason positioning, coach Kenny Atkinson called that talk presumptuous. He warned they weren’t a playoff team yet and hadn’t done anything to look at themselves as one.

The Nets then got a stinging reminder from the Hornets of just how far from being a postseason contender they still are, a piece of humble pie served up in the form of a 100-87 loss Friday at Spectrum Center.

The Nets — who had won nine of their past 10, including a double overtime victory over Charlotte on Wednesday at Barclays Center — fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. And despite a late rally led by D’Angelo Russell, who scored a game-high 33 points, they never got closer than five the rest of the night.

Kemba Walker had 29 points for Charlotte, but this wasn’t a case of losing to one man. The Nets shot just 4-of-27 from 3-point range and had just 14 assists in a stagnant performance.

“I just think it’s pretentious of us to think that we’re a playoff team right now. We haven’t done enough, quite honestly,” Atkinson said beforehand. “I just want to keep improving, keep getting better. If out of that comes something bigger, then great.

“I just don’t think we’ve done enough to start talking about bigger things. … Maybe that’s just my mentality. I’m fine with the players thinking differently. Everyone’s got their way of looking at things. But we haven’t talked about, ‘Hey, this is an important game or two games.’ ”

The Nets (17-20) came into Friday’s rematch a game behind the Pistons for the sixth seed in the East — and just a half-game behind the Heat and Hornets (17-17) for seventh and eighth, respectively — so the home-and-home had importantance. They came out with a split, albeit escaping a nailbiter and suffering a thrashing.

The Hornets tried to deny guards Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie early, and laid off Jarrett Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who combined to miss all 12 of their combined first-half shots. The big men finished a combined 2-for-15 from the floor, and Allen added five turnovers.

The Nets’ spacing was hideous with Allen and Hollis-Jefferson on the floor, and they quickly fell behind 26-6 with just under five minutes left in the first quarter. They missed 12 of their first 15 shots, while the Hornets got out on the break and hit 10-of-17.

Because Allen was having fits with Cody Zeller — his 10 points and six boards in the first quarter alone exceeded his season averages — Atkinson finally went with Ed Davis and Jared Dudley. Davis’ energy and Dudley’s floor spacing helped spark a 19-9 run, cutting the deficit in half. But the Nets never got over the hump.

The Nets trailed 66-48 in the third quarter after a bucket by Walker, but Russell sparked a 17-7 run to pull them within eight. Consecutive layups from Shabazz Napier cut the deficit to 79-74 with 7:22 left. But the Hornets called timeout, and Walker came out and answered with a 3-pointer to try to stem the tide.

Russell’s 3-pointer pulled the Nets within 84-79 with 5:57 to play, and DeMarre Carroll (15 points) made a layup to whittle the deficit to 88-83. But after a Walker 3, Tony Parker, who had 17 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, stole a bad pass from Russell and hit a pull-up to double the lead with 3:33 remaining.

Atkinson’s warnings and apprehensions proved understandable. This is a young team unfamiliar with success, or thinking playoffs.

“It’s too early for us to be thinking that way,” Atkinson said prior to the tip-off. “We have so much basketball left to play. Quite honestly you’re not even looking at the standings, you’re so focused on game-by-game. If this is late March or early April it’d be a different deal. But there’s a lot of games left to be played in the season. It’s still early. We need to focus on our improvement and continue to get better.”

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