Nets fall to Suns in James Harden’s return as skid hits five

PHOENIX — Even the return of James Harden wasn’t enough for the Nets to avoid their longest losing streak in two years.

Harden, who had missed the previous two games, finished with 22 points and 10 assists and Kyrie Irving added 26 points, but against the white-hot Suns, it wasn’t enough. The Nets lost 121-111 to the league-leaders before a sellout crowd of 17,071 at Footprint Center.

The Nets’ season-long losing streak stretched to five straight, their worst skid since Jan. 14-23, 2020. They’ve also lost 12 of their last 18.

The Suns won their 11th consecutive game, improving to an NBA-best 41-9.

Devin Booker poured in 35 points, while Chris Paul put on a point guard master class, with 20 points and a game-high 14 assists.

“I thought we didn’t get many bounces tonight. But that’s a part of it. Like I told the guys, we’re getting better,” coach Steve Nash said.

Devin Booker, who scored 35 points, shoots a jumper as Kyrie Irving defends during the Nets’ 121-111 loss to the Suns.
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“That’s a high level team playing the best basketball in the league, a lot of momentum on their home court, great crowd and we — other than giving up 39 in the first quarter, getting them in the bonus early in the fourth and some loose balls — we match them for large stretches. So, we are getting better. We’ve got to sustain longer periods of concentration. We came up short tonight. But again, we’re growing and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Harden had sat out the Nets’ previous two games, last Wednesday against the Nuggets with a hamstring injury and Saturday at Golden State with a strained right (non-shooting) hand. But after practicing Monday and going through the morning shootaround Tuesday, he returned to face the Suns.

“I think that it’s a tough assignment,” Nash said of Harden’s return. “They’re long and a lot of two way players and they take away space, and without Kevin [Durant] out there to draw more attention, Joe [Harris] out there to draw more attention, it’s a lot on him. But I thought he looked good and did a lot of good things. It was close to having a huge game, so proud of his effort.”

James Harden talks with Kyrie Irving during the Nets' loss to the Suns.
James Harden talks with Kyrie Irving during the Nets’ loss to the Suns.

Harden found rookie Kessler Edwards for a 3-pointer and an early 14-13 lead with 7:53 left in the first. And Harden’s free throw 22 seconds later put the Nets up 16-14.

But they coughed up a 9-2 run to fall behind by nine. A Booker pull-up left the Nets trailing 25-16, and they spent the rest of the first half chasing Phoenix.

A well-oiled Suns machine that was absolutely clinical in its actions carved up the Nets’ defense. The Nets trailed 39-29 after the first quarter, in which Phoenix shot 71.4 percent and Booker scored 14 points.

At halftime, the Nets trailed 65-58, but they came out of the locker room scoring seven unanswered points to open the third quarter. Edwards capped the run and knotted the score on a hook shot with 9:15 left in the third.

The Nets actually took the lead, at 70-69 on Patty Mills’ left-wing 3-pointer. But that advantage was all too brief.

This time, the Nets were on the wrong end of a 7-0 run. Mikal Bridges’ driving layup put Phoenix back ahead 76-70.

The Nets were still in contact, and they trailed just 78-74 with under four minutes left in the third when Harden turned the corner and drove to the rim. But after JaVale McGee snatched the All-Star’s floater out of the air, every Net on the court protested and argued for a goaltending call that never came.

What did come was a Phoenix fast-break the other way. Booker finished the break with a bucket, and just like that, the Suns heated back up. A 10-2 run left the Nets trailing 88-76.

Cam Johnson’s 3-pointer pushed the deficit to 12 and Nash called for a timeout with 2:25 left in the third.

Irving led a comeback that proved too little, too late. He had nine points in the first 2:58 of the fourth quarter to pull the Nets to within three, at 97-94. But Phoenix answered with a 6-0 run to kill the momentum.

Bridges sandwiched a pair of and-ones around missed layups by Irving and Nic Claxton. And after Bridges sank the free throw to complete the second and-one with 8:15 left, the Nets were in a 103-94 hole from which they never recovered.

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