The Nets appeared to get caught looking past the Bulls, and toward the looming return of their own Big 3.
Brooklyn’s winning streak came to an abrupt end, as did Chicago’s losing skid, as the Nets fell 115-107 at the United Center in Chicago on Sunday, snapping a four-game run and falling out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
A defensive implosion and second-quarter collapse did in the Nets. They led by nine points in the first quarter, but got outscored 32-18 in the second and lost both Tyler Johnson and Landry Shamet in the fourth.
Kyrie Irving, the last man standing from Brooklyn’s Big 3, had 24 points and 15 assists. Jeff Green added 21. But with both Kevin Durant and James Harden out, the Nets couldn’t answer a mid-game barrage from a Chicago team that came in having dropped six straight and eight of their past nine.
The Nets (34-16) fell a half game behind Philadelphia, who play the Grizzlies on Sunday night, for first place in the East.
Zach LaVine had a game-high 25 points. Nikola Vucevic, a noted Net-killer during his days in Orlando, continued to torment Brooklyn with 22 points and 13 rebounds and Tomas Satoransky added 19 points and 11 assists for a Bulls team that shot 55.1 percent.
“Yeah, great challenge,” coach Steve Nash had warned beforehand. “Obviously, you know, Zach [LaVine] is an elite athlete who has turned into a very efficient All-Star performer. So he can score in a variety of ways, put pressure on the defense.
“A combination of him and [Vucevic] is just beginning, so they’re going to find themselves at some point here and be very difficult to contend with and tonight they’ll definitely challenge us and we have other players, too. So, this is a much more mature and dangerous roster after the trades and we have our hands full for sure tonight to try to slow them down.”
The Nets had actually jumped ahead 24-15 right out of the gate behind Irving, as well as LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin. They still led 37-35 midway through the second quarter after an Irving turnaround bank shot.
But that’s when things went sideways for Brooklyn, letting the Bulls close the first half on a 22-9 run. The Nets suddenly went ice cold, shooting just 4 of 12 the rest of the way, and watching Chicago hit 9 of 13.
Down 57-46 at the break, they saw that deficit swell to 76-59.
The Nets did mount an 8-0 blitz over a two-minute span, to pull within 76-67 on an Irving pull-up. But Vucevic and Satoransky always had answers, and padded Chicago’s lead back up to 89-72 after three quarters.
Brooklyn did reel off eight unanswered points to open the fourth, climbing within 89-80. But the Nets lost their momentum, and a pair of guards as well.
Johnson left the game with 9:26 left after suffering appeared to be a right knee injury. It was non-contact, which is never encouraging. He was helped off the court with the help of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Alize Johnson, putting no pressure whatsoever on that leg.
Shamet checked out exactly 1:07 later with a limp. It was only his second game back after having missed five straight with a sprained ankle.