Nets keep playing down to their opponent’s level, and it has consequences even when they win

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The Nets had an opportunity to blow it wide open.

Kyrie Irving couldn’t miss, the Timberwolves couldn’t keep up, and Brooklyn built a lead as big as 17 in the game’s first 14 minutes.

Then the Nets took their foot off the gas against the team that owns the NBA’s worst record. What was supposed to be quick and easy work turned into a 48-minute drag, a 112-107 win for the Nets in a game that should have been decided much sooner than the 3:50 mark of the fourth quarter.

The Nets picked up their 17th win in 21 games. They remain the team with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record, a team that continues to roll with Kevin Durant sidelined with a hamstring injury. They project to continue getting better, with Durant returning to play sometime in the coming weeks, and with Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge matriculating into the Nets’ system. They remain championship favorites, a team with a talent pool compares even to Durant’s back-to-back champion Warriors teams.

But the opportunity cost of not handling business early on is too high. What could have been a 25-minute night for Harden became a 40-minute load mismanagement. Harden has been an ironman through the course of his career, but the Nets played with their food and, in effect, played with fire. In a condensed season where teams are playing more games with little practice time in between, the Nets should be searching for ways to buy rest time for their stars.

There’s also the competitive side: Juggernaut teams like the Nets can ill-afford to let teams like the Timberwolves hang around for quarters on end. Just being in arm’s reach of an elite opponent is a confidence booster for a Minnesota team playing with nothing to lose.

This has been a theme for the Nets this season. They have played down to lesser, non-playoff competition at almost every juncture. The Timberwolves have the NBA’s worst record and were without star point guard and former Net D’Angelo Russell (left knee surgery) or their best defender, Josh Okogie (health and safety protocols).

Nets head coach Steve Nash has spoken at length about the team’s perceived lack of respect for those opponents with lesser records. Whatever message he’s had has not gotten through, because the Nets did not put the nail in the coffin as early as they should.

James Harden finished with a 38 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds, tying Jason Kidd’s single-season record of 12 triple doubles. Harden hit what should have been a fourth-quarter dagger, a top-of-the-key three that gave the Nets a 10-point lead with 3:50 to go. The Timberwolves immediately responded with a timeout.

Shortly after, they turned the Nets over two times in a row and went on a run that made it a one-point game with less than a minute to go. Had Russell been available, the situation could have been a storybook ending for a clutch playmaker who decrees ice in his veins.

There is no story, however, if the Nets handle business when they should and expand leads, rather than blow them. The Nets must stop playing with their food if they hope to avoid playing with fire.

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