Avoiding the Bucks in the playoffs for as long as possible appears to be a wise goal for any team in the Eastern Conference.
The current seventh- and eighth-place teams in the East played with that sort of desperation Monday night, but the Nets had their lead over No. 8 Orlando in the standings slashed to 1 ½ games by flushing a 19-point third-quarter lead and suffering a frantic 115-113 loss to the Magic at Barclays Center.
Whichever team finishes seventh almost certainly will bypass a matchup with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and top-seeded Milwaukee — on pace for 70 wins — in the opening round.
“We’re just trying to get in. We’re just trying to make it,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said when asked specifically about the Bucks before the game. “I don’t even think about those [scenarios]. It’s Orlando tonight. How do we get past this? A good team.
“I think that’s the mentality. I think as we get toward the end of the season it becomes more of a topic, but now the mentality is definitely not there.”
Spencer Dinwiddie led the Nets with 24 points — albeit none in the fourth quarter, with Caris LeVert netting 19 and Garrett Temple adding 18 off the bench. Aaron Gordon paced the Magic (25-32) with 27 and Terrence Ross scored 13 of his 21 points in the final period.
With 26 games remaining, Atkinson’s words should represent the proper small-view approach for the Nets (26-30). Especially since they now will be without both of their star free-agent signings from last summer for the remainder of the season after Kyrie Irving announced last week he’ll undergo shoulder surgery to join Kevin Durant (torn Achilles) on the injured list.
Still, Brooklyn had won seven of its previous 10, including five straight at home (all by at least 10 points) since Jan 29.
Since Irving was injured Feb. 1, the Nets have ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating. And Atkinson liked how his undermanned team had responded recently to questions of its viability without its two All-Star additions.
“I do think we are gaining a little bit of an edge in our play and a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Atkinson said. “There are doubters there, with the injuries we’ve had, and the guys we’ve had out.
“I’m the biggest one, I stir it up the most. Like, no one thinks you can do it. I’ve had people tell me ‘With the team in there, you’re not going to get it done, you’re not going to the playoffs,’ and that just kind of irks me. So it stirs those guys up. Young players and players in general are motivated by that. I’m motivated by it. That kind of really sparks your competitive spirit. So I’d like to see that continue.”
Dinwiddie poured in 14 points as the Nets led 54-41 at halftime, holding Orlando to 35.6 percent from the floor and 3-for-18 from 3-point range through two quarters. Brooklyn upped its advantage to 19 points three minutes into the third, but Orlando slashed the deficit to six with a 19-6 surge.
The Magic netted the first seven points of the final quarter, however, and seized an 88-87 lead on a dunk by Ross with 10:34 remaining. That was the first of eight lead changes over the next six minutes, with Taurean Prince sinking two free throws to put the Nets up 107-106 with 4:50 to go.
Gordon’s leaner edged the Magic back ahead and his 3-pointer pushed the score to 115-111 with 1:12 left.
Allen’s dunk drew the Nets back within two, but Gordon rejected a LeVert drive and Prince clanked a 3 attempt with 9.6 seconds remaining.
The Nets had life after forcing a turnover by Markelle Fultz, but Prince’s desperation shot fell short just before the final buzzer.