A two-day Christmas break looked like it was going to do the Nets some good. They played with passion and energy and seemed committed to breaking though and ending their second-longest losing streak of the season.
But on the court you make your own breaks.
It didn’t matter how hard they worked because the undersized Rockets know something about working for a win. They’ve done it all season in the deep West and did it to the Nets Saturday night, losers of a 98-93 nailbiter, their ninth in a row.
It wasn’t the Nets’ ninth nailbiter in a row, but their ninth loss. The first seven were lopsided for the most part, but the last two have come down to the wire. The 2-28 Nets just haven’t been able to make the key stop or hit the key shot that gets them over the hump.
On this night it was the key shot, key stop and key rebounds. The Nets missed five of their last eight shots, let Aaron Brooks score on a layup with 37.3 seconds left to make it 93-91 and the boards were a problem all night.
That’s work. That’s hustle. That’s desire. As much as the Nets wanted this game, coming back from 11 down to be a stop and a shot away from taking the lead in the final minute, they couldn’t keep the more aggressive Rockets off the glass.
Houston held a 16-6 edge on the offensive boards, 12-7 advantage in second-chance points and were plus-12 overall in rebounding. They also took 15 more foul shots. Although six were on intentional fouls in the final 24 seconds, it was an indication of how much more aggressive the Rockets were.
“Clearly, you’re not going to win many games when you give up 16 offensive rebounds,” coach Kiki Vandeweghe said. “In many ways it’s too bad because we did a lot of good things in the game. We worked very hard, played very good defense, especially in the second half.
“We played hard. We played pretty well. I think that it’s just the little things. Tonight it was just offensive rebounds that hurt us.”
The Nets weren’t as downtrodden as you would expect after this loss because they feel as if they’re getting closer.
Yi Jianlian made some mistakes in this game –- a key missed foul shot, drawing a tech for hanging on the rim, not being much of a presence on the defensive glass –- but you have to like the way he’s played since returning from injury.
This was his second game back after seven weeks out of uniform and he followed up his 22-point night Wednesday with a 17-point effort last night. He was aggressive offensively, taking the ball to the basket and looking for dunks and fouls. He had two driving dunks and almost a third.
The Nets couldn’t have expected Yi would come back this strong. Now they’re waiting for Chris Douglas-Roberts (ankle) and Jarvis Hayes (hamstring). Their returns could be at some point next week, and yes, the Nets could be whole finally.
That doesn’t mean they’re going to reel off a nine-game winning streak. But they believe they’re going to win some games in the near future –- once they clean up some end-of-game execution things and commit more to the defensive end.
The Nets played much better defense in this game, but giving the Rockets 16 extra possessions means they didn’t finish out the trip.
“It’s defensively,” Devin Harris said. “I think we gave up too many offensive rebounds, too many tapouts where they got more possessions than we did. They’re a tough team. They keep grinding it out and keep getting shots at the basket. One of them is going to fall for them. That’s what we’ve got to try and cut out.”
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)