Nets looking to end skid against NBA-best Suns

PHOENIX — The slumping Nets are falling down the standings. They can’t let their heads fall, too.

Not during the middle of a brutal, five-game western gauntlet, following up Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss at Golden State (the NBA’s second-best team) with Tuesday’s clash at league-leading Phoenix.

The Nets may have lost four straight, but they can’t afford to lose their resolve, even with their Big 3 down to one last man standing.

“It’s not the first time in my career that I’ve lost four in a row,” Kyrie Irving said. “It’s not the first time Steve [Nash] has lost four in a row. It’s not the first time James [Harden] has lost four in a row. A lot of us have lost games consecutively. But what I’ve learned — and I think other guys could echo this sentiment — is just we can’t be fragile. People are going to come at us. Nobody’s going to feel bad for us whether this guy’s in the lineup, this guy’s not in the lineup.

Nets guard Kyrie Irving, left, attempts a basket as Warriors forward Otto Porter Jr. defends.

“Every team is competing for those top four positions. We’re one of those teams that have aspirations of playing down in the late postseason. And these games right here, you remember them because you’re going against a Western Conference team that could potentially be seeing you down the line. So you never know what could happen is basically what I’m saying.”

Few teams exemplify that as much as Brooklyn, for whom no week is ever boring or without drama.

Irving is still only eligible for road games due to his unvaccinated status, adding importance to cashing in on this western swing that includes stops in Utah, Sacramento and Denver. But he’ll be without not only Kevin Durant (sprained MCL), but possibly Harden as well. Harden has missed the past two games, including a last-minute scratch Saturday in Golden State with a hand sprain. It is uncertain whether Harden will play Tuesday.

“To start this road trip off against the Warriors and now on to Phoenix is a great test for us,” said Patty Mills, who stepped into Harden’s vacated spot against the Warriors with 24 points on 6-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. “So we’ve just got to understand that for the big picture, we’ve just got to keep chipping away and putting things into the bank fully believing that this is going to pay off for us at the end of the season. And that’s what I believe.”

Nets guard Patty Mills (8) dribbles the ball up the court against the Warriors during the first half of a game in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.
Patty Mills

That season is rapidly going awry — or more accurately, being undone by injuries. Last weekend the Nets were perched atop the Eastern Conference, but they come into Tuesday just 29-20. They entered Sunday sixth in the standings and face a white-hot Suns team rolling behind Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

“When you come out and [play] games like these, it’s a great test,” Irving said. “And we want to carry over the lessons that we’re learning onto the next game of Phoenix. And it’s not going to get any easier.

“Those guys are healthy. And those guys are hungry. Devin Booker is playing at an unbelievable level. So is CP. And those guys that were in the Finals last year, so it’s not going to get easy on this road trip. So it’s no time to be fragile.”

Finalists last year, Phoenix has been where the Nets are trying to get — and surpass. The Suns’ 39-9 mark and nine-game winning streak were both league-highs coming into their Sunday game with San Antonio.

Booker was averaging 25.1 points, while Paul was handing out a league-high 10.2 assists. Harden is right behind Paul in assists and the sidelined Durant leads the league in scoring, but Nash said the Nets can’t sit around and wait for either or both.

“It’s our job to make sure these guys recognize it’s about improvement. It’s about growth,” Nash said. “We’re undermanned, and hopefully we win a bunch of games undermanned. But if we don’t, it’s about growth, it’s about getting better, and it’s about us putting ourselves in a position down the line that’s further ahead. And when we do get reinforcements, we’ll be much better for it.”

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