MILWAUKEE — The Nets sat most of their starters Thursday night against the best team in the NBA.
The offense was as bad as expected, but the Nets still almost rode strong defense to a win.
They nearly overcame their worst shooting drought in a decade, rallying from a huge hole before losing 118-113 to the league-leading Bucks at Fiserv Forum.
After they had won their last three games by double digits, the Nets played without starters Nic Claxton, Spencer Dinwiddie and Cam Johnson, as well as minutes leader Royce O’Neale.
The threadbare lineup went nearly 5 ½ minutes without a basket in the first quarter, essentially giving the game away there and never catching the Bucks (48-18).
The Nets (37-29) missed 15 straight shots — with a shot-clock violation thrown in for good measure — to turn an early eight-point lead into an 11-point first-quarter deficit.
The Nets hadn’t missed that many consecutive shots since they were playing in New Jersey and missed 16 straight at Orlando on March 16, 2012, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The deficit swelled to 22 in the second quarter, and though the Nets fought back to get within two points, at 99-97, with 5:03 left in the game on a Dru Smith pull-up, they never got over the hump.
Day’Ron Sharpe had a potential tying dunk attempt blocked by Brook Lopez (the Nets’ all-time leading scorer) with 4:31 left.
And after Cam Thomas, who had 21 points off the bench, made a running layup to cut it to 112-110 with 46.3 seconds to play, Lopez (24 points) punished his old team with a huge tip-in with 30.6 seconds left that essentially served as the dagger.
Even without former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks held the Nets to 39.2 percent shooting from the floor, and did just enough.
Little-used Patty Mills had a team-high 23 points off the bench for the Nets, with Jacque Vaughn denying his team was punting the game.
“Yeah it’s just how the schedule presented itself,” Vaughn said. “We had guys who had some nagging I guess you want to call them injuries a little bit. So a chance for us to listen to those nagging injuries and be smart about what this stretch of the season looks like.
“It’s a great chance for us to look at a few guys who were in the rotation at one point and worked themselves out of the rotation just because of numbers. So we get a chance to look at a few guys we’ll see what some rotations look like. We’ll always stay curious and see how we can be versatile to try and get a win.”
On Dec. 10, in their infamous “Eight Men Out” game at Indiana, the Nets sat eight players but still beat the Pacers — and later drew a fine from the league.
But the Bucks aren’t the Pacers.
Antetokounmpo, who had been dealing with a non-COVID illness, was ruled out Thursday due to right-hand soreness.
And the Nets got off to a quick start, with Mikal Bridges’ 3-pointer spotting them a 13-5 edge with 8:53 left in the first.
Little did they expect they were going to miss 15 straight shots. Seven of those were low-value looks in the midrange, exactly where they didn’t want to be operating, but exactly where the Bucks forced them.
Jrue Holiday’s fadeaway put the Nets down 24-13 with 4:46 left in the quarter, and they never reclaimed the lead.
By the time Sharpe — who struggled much of the night — broke the drought on a tip dunk with 3:20 remaining in the first, Milwaukee had control.
The deficit grew to 46-24 on a running 3-pointer by Bobby Portis, who had a game-high 28 points, with 9:21 left in the half.
To that point, the Nets were just 9-for-34 from the floor, while the Bucks had gone 12-for -21 … from deep.
But the Nets had some fight left in them. Smith, called up from G-League Long Island, had 11 of his 17 points in the third quarter alone as the Nets outscored Milwaukee 33-22.
The Nets cut the deficit to 87-80 going into the fourth.
They cut it to three twice: on Thomas’ off-balance 3-pointer with nine minutes left and on Yuta Watanabe’s running layup with 6:39 to play.
Smith’s pull-up cut it to 99-97, but Sharpe’s dunk attempt got blocked, and the Nets never pulled even.