Nets fall to Bulls in battle of NBA elites

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Despite toting the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Nets have done little to dispel the perception that they still haven’t fully hit their stride this season.

Having suffered losses to top-tier teams such as the Bucks, Bulls, Heat, Warriors and Suns, Saturday’s rematch against the Bulls represented the perfect opportunity to both defeat a quality opponent and complete their first sweep of back-to-back games this season.

So much for that.

The Nets suffered their second fourth-quarter giveaway against Chicago in the past month, squandering an 11-point, second half advantage and falling to the Bulls, 111-107, at Barclays Center.

Kevin Durant scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 38 minutes, and LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 points for the Nets, but James Harden missed 16 of 21 shots to finish with 14, albeit with a game-high 14 assists.

Zach LaVine netted 31 points and DeMar DeRozan poured in 13 of his 29 in the fourth quarter as the Bulls (16-8) closed within a half-game of the No. 1 Nets (16-7) in the Eastern Conference standings.

Kevin Durant argues a call during the Nets' 111-107 loss to the Bulls.
Kevin Durant argues a call during the Nets’ 111-107 loss to the Bulls.
Corey Sipkin

“They’ve got a lot of guys that get into the ball and then the most important thing is I think they have a great spirit,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Billy Donovan’s improved team before the game. “Like the top teams in our league, they seem to all play for one another and there’s a certainty, a clarity to their group, that they’re trying to do this together, and I think that really helps them.”

With veteran forward James Johnson sitting out with a shoulder injury, Paul Millsap netted a season-high 13 points in 15 minutes, and Bruce Brown grabbed a team-best 12 rebounds — including five on the offensive glass.

The Bulls had pulled away from the Nets with a 42-17 fourth-quarter outclassing in the previous meeting between the two teams on Nov. 8 at United Center, ending the Nets’ five-game winning streak. That game also came on the second leg of back-to-back games.

Kevin Durant puts up an off-balance shot as Derrick Jones defends during the Nets' loss to the Bulls.
Kevin Durant puts up an off-balance shot as Derrick Jones defends during the Nets’ loss to the Bulls.
Corey Sipkin

The Nets, who eked out an ugly home win Friday night against Minnesota, have split all four of their sets of games on consecutive nights this season.

“I think it just takes a lot of mental toughness,” Nash said of back-to-backs before the game. “Hopefully, we can find a way to put in two good performances on the back-to-backs, not kind of run out of gas on the second one or not be as sharp in the second one.

“I think it’s really a matter of our team growing and having the mental toughness to be sharp on the second night of a back-to-back.”

Patty Mills, who started his ninth straight game in place of injured Joe Harris (ankle), scored 12 points in 34 minutes. The 13-year NBA veteran had said following Friday’s win that “when this thing clicks — and it will at some point — it’s going to be very exciting.”

The Nets, who shot 6-for-23 from long distance Friday night, came out firing with five 3-pointers in the first half, including early connections by DeAndre’ Bembry, Mills and Harden for a quick 9-0 lead. LaVine totaled eight points in the quarter, however, helping the Bulls close to within 34-28 by the end of the period.

Millsap exceeded his previous season-best scoring output (eight on Oct. 29) with two early buckets in the second to reach double digits (11). Durant netted 12 points, and Harden finished the half with 10 points and eight assists as the Nets carried a slim 56-52 advantage into intermission.

Durant’s seven points helped the Nets extend their lead to 11 early in the third, but LaVine had 13 in the quarter — including a left-side 3-pointer in the final minute — to help draw the Bulls within 82-79 entering the final session.

The Nets missed nine of their first 11 shot attempts to open the fourth, and the Bulls jumped them for a 13-4 run to grab six-point lead. Durant’s 25-footer pulled the Nets within 107-105 with 39.7 seconds to go, but Lonzo Ball sank a right-corner 3 and posed at the front row of fans for a 110-105 game with 16.9 ticks remaining.

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