BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Hosting the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder in the first of four straight home games at the Barclays Center's friendly confines was appetizing to Avery Johnson and the Brooklyn Nets. The NBA's Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for November was aware of the daunting mission that faced the black-and-white, playing a Rolling Thunder team winners of five straight and tied for the league high in victories (14-4), but these aren't the Nets of basketball past set up to be embarrassed. These are the fresh and hip Brooklynites who owned their shiny new court, and embraced the immense expectations that arrived with a new city, new colors, national exposure and a revamping of their roster.
So when the Thunder hit 21 of their first 30 shots and took a 61-48 halftime lead, Johnson issued a challenge. That swagger and killer instinct wholly apparent in victories over the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers was missing. A Nets team that had won seven of its first eight games at Barclays Center was being run over in the paint and out of the building.
"I was disappointed in their effort in the first half," Johnson said. "We were playing like we were giving them too much respect and I didn't see the Brooklyn Nets. I didn't see that look in their eyes. I saw it in the third quarter. I saw our team in the second half, but obviously against Oklahoma you have to play more than a half."
Taking the court with a vengeance in the third, the Nets pushed the Thunder to the brink of collapse, but by the time the game's highest-scoring team (105.1 ppg) was through with a 117-111 win that saw it shoot a blistering 60.6 percent from the floor, the Nets were left with one of those moral victories. They fought back in the second half, trimming a 16-point deficit to two with 1:52 to play before a debatable goaltending call on Kris Humphries and subsequent video review killed their momentum, but that wasn't the first time a breakthrough was in Brooklyn's grasp. Like Sisyphus' perpetual failed efforts trying to get that boulder to the top of the mountain, the Nets were a three days late and three dollars short. The men in white lived and died in three-point range, hoisting 34 shots from downtown and converting on 14 (41.2 percent), too often going for broke.
The Thunder bent, the Nets broke. Team Brooklyn has 48 hours to convalesce - Johnson decided not to hold practice until Friday's shootaround, the morning of their next game against the Golden State Warriors - and simmer over the fact that it was close but no cigar.
"They were getting the ball to their scorers and getting on top of the basket," Humphries said. "We put ourselves in position to win that game. It's tough. A loss is a loss to us. We're not the Nets of the past few years. No moral victories."
The Nets are much-improved and are a bona fide playoff contender. And to be fair they've rarely played a game this season at 100 percent capacity. But are they an elite team? No, not yet. They've dropped two straight to the defending champions of the league and the west, respectively. Last Saturday Brooklyn led the Miami Heat by as many as 14 before they were outscored 52-30 in the second half while turning the ball over 11 times. Despite ringing up 38 third-quarter points on Tuesday, a season-high in any quarter, it was the Thunder that left their imprint on the game.
Kevin Durant poured in a monstrous 32 points as OKC's star-studded starting five overcame Deron Williams' season-high of 33 on 10 of 20 shooting. Despite all five Nets starters posting double figures, the Thunder's big names - Russell Westbrook added 25 points and nine assists and Serge Ibaka 18 with three blocks- were too much for a Nets team missing two pivotal players in Brook Lopez (sprained foot) and Reggie Evans (flu).
"We're still trying to figure things out," Williams said. "We've had some good wins but these last two were humbling. It shows us we still have a bit of a ways to go before we can be considered one of the upper echelon teams. Them shooting 60 percent from the field is hard to overcome."
The Nets' bench totaled a mere 16 points - eight each from Jerry Stackhouse and Mirza Teletovic - as Johnson switched Gerald Wallace to power forward while playing Humphries at center to spell Andray Blatche (nine points and 11 boards starting his third game in place of Lopez). The Nets are good, real good, but elite status remains on hold. The challenge is ongoing: hang with and consistently find a way to beat up the big boys without sleepwalking through the beginning or the end.
They're not quite there yet, and they have two days to think about why and how.
"This is a game we should have won, man," said Joe Johnson. "A few big plays or a big play here and there is what cost us the game."
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