The Nets were already playing without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, having lost their two stars before they even got to Memphis, Tenn.
On Friday, they lost to the Grizzlies despite Caris LeVert playing like a star himself.
The Nets dug themselves a huge first-half hole before a rally, led by LeVert, fell just short in a 115-110 loss at FedEx Forum.
LeVert poured in 43 points, including 19 in the third quarter alone. It’s the Nets’ highest total this season and included a career-high 7-of-9 from 3-point range.
But, though the Nets had opportunities, they were simply too sloppy down the stretch. Their paucity of playmakers came back to haunt them. They were missing not just Durant (quarantine), but guards Irving (personal reasons), Spencer Dinwiddie (torn ACL) and Tyler Johnson (quarantine).
“Obviously, it’s a totally different team when those guys are out here,” LeVert had said of Durant and Irving. “But I think we’ve done a great job of having the next-man-up mentality, guys stepping into those roles and filling what we need as a team, and that will be important for us all year.”
Nobody can complain that LeVert didn’t do a great job. He just got too little support, and the Nets got too slow a start.
After trailing by 22 with 41.7 seconds left in the first half — and by 72-54 with 3:28 to go in the third — the Nets stormed ahead with a 26-6 run. They hit 9-of-11 shots in the blitz, capped by LeVert finding Jarrett Allen for an and-one and an 80-78 edge.
The rest of the night was a tooth-and-nail affair. But the Nets went ice cold down the stretch, going 3 ¹/₂ minutes without a score. They endured a game-deciding 9-0 run late, with rookie coach Steve Nash waiting too long to call a timeout and stem the tide. He also left Allen on the bench during that span instead of pulling veteran DeAndre Jordan.
The Nets missed four straight shots and committed a pair of turnovers, watching a two-point edge turn into a 111-104 hole with a minute left and letting the game slip out of their grasp.
Memphis — which lost superstar guard Ja Morant in an earlier overtime win in Brooklyn — lost big man Jonas Valanciunas during this game due to health and safety protocols. But the Grizzlies started off strong, piling up 40 points in the first quarter.
The Nets were down just 21-20 after a LeVert running 3-pointer, but Memphis went on a 19-8 run to close the first. Then, offered a chance to catch their footing, the Nets came right out and allowed a 10-2 spurt to open the second.
After a Tim Frazier pull-up gave the Grizzlies a 50-30 lead, Nash had no choice but to call a timeout with his Nets getting battered, 27-11, on the boards and 7-2 on the offensive glass.
The Nets still trailed by 22 with 41 seconds left in the half before they closed with the final seven points, all from the charity stripe, to try and get back in it.
They trailed by 15 at the break, and a Jeff Green 3-pointer pulled them within 72-63 midway through the third quarter.
LeVert drove and earned a pair of free throws to make it 74-65 with 6:14 in the third, but just as importantly sent Dillon Brooks (a team-high 24 points) to the bench with his fourth foul.
After a Taurean Prince bucket, LeVert’s back-to-back 3-pointers pulled the Nets within a deuce. He hit another 3 to make it 78-77 then found a cutting Allen for an and-one and their first lead since the early stages of the opening period.
The Nets still had a 104-102 edge after a Landry Shamet 3-pointer, but they couldn’t hold onto it down the stretch.