Nets’ valiant effort without Big 3 falls short against Nuggets and NBA’s reigning MVP

Nets center LaMarcus Aldridge did his best against Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. (Adam Hunger/AP)

Maybe the Nets should play without their stars more often. Or maybe the Nets need to play like they’re shorthanded when they’re at full strength.

With James Harden (hamstring tightness), Kevin Durant (MCL sprain), Kyrie Irving (ineligible), Joe Harris (ankle surgery rehab) and Nic Claxton (hamstring maintenance) all sidelined, the Nets didn’t let their missing parts dictate the result. Instead, what was shaping up to be a snoozer at Barclays Center turned into a fourth-quarter thriller that resulted in a 124-118 loss to the Denver Nuggets — which the Nets still have a reason to hold their heads high for.

“The activity was great defensively,” Steve Nash said. “I think we had some breakdowns, offensive rebounds, going for steals and not getting them and maybe not being up tight enough on shooters at times, whatever. You could go through a litany of things we could maybe improve technically, but I thought offensively the ball moved, we tried to do some things together, play together, get to multiple screens, multiple actions, play early, play with pace. There was a great burst into a lot of our actions so I was proud of them for that. Just not enough.

“It was a very good team, and we played well for long stretches, but probably just didn’t take care of enough details to close it out.”

The Nuggets entered the game 5.5-point favorites with the best player on the floor, the reigning Most Valuable Player of the Year Nikola Jokic. Jokic flirted with a triple double and finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but he didn’t have the kind of performance many expected.

Jokic is one of the most unique players in NBA history. He’s a big man who draws comparisons to Hall of Famer Larry Bird with his size and skill on the offensive end. Jokic, however, is used to bullying his defender.

LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t having it.

Aldridige proved a capable defender in half-court situations … when Jokic didn’t have the ball in transition to make plays. The Nets’ veteran big man finished with 18 points and eight rebounds on the night. Most importantly, Steve Nash matched minutes for Jokic and Aldridge. Whenever “The Joker” was on the floor, Aldridge wasn’t too far away.

It took a quality performance from each available Net for the game to stay competitive. Rookie scorer Cam Thomas came off the bench and scored 24 points in 25 minutes, and Patty Mills shot 4-of-8 from downtown for 21 points. In all, six Nets scored in double figures, and Bruce Brown was the only player to check in that didn’t score.

The effort just wasn’t enough.

Denver’s Austin Rivers hit seven three-pointers off the bench for 25 points, and swingman Will Barton scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Add another 13 points from former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and the Nets just didn’t have enough firepower to compete.

Cousins, in typical Cousins’ fashion, was ejected in the second half after picking up his second technical foul. That’s when Jokic played the lion’s share of the center minutes down the stretch.

“He goes at his own pace,” Mills, an Australian guard, said of the Serbian Jokic. “That is hard to defend. When he drives the ball or when he’s running up and down the court, he makes you play at his pace. I think that’s very hard because it is out of the ordinary. His ability to find others, not only get his own shot in the post or top of the key. Even his drives from the perimeter into the paint, I think it’s just his ability to mix all of those things up and have variety. He’s a beast on the boards, obviously that’s No. 1, but I think the biggest thing is his ability at his size, great hands, being able to pass and find teammates and get them going. That’s impressive for a big guy.”

Wednesday night’s performance, however, was the type of game that should inspire the Nets as they embark on a five-game west coast road trip. Provided Harden’s hamstring trouble is just tightness and not something more serious, the Nets will have two of their three stars available for Saturday’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors.

The Nuggets (25-21, No. 6 in the West) are hardly the Warriors, but every team with a star is a handful for a team without one.

The Nets played Wednesday night without three and still stuck around, up until a few possessions went the Nuggets’ way down the stretch. If they can bottle their effort against Denver and overnight it to San Francisco, there should be lofty competition between Harden and Irving and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“Everybody knows their strengths and we kind of stick to it, so it was good that we were able to get back to our old ways because a lot of guys are out,” DeAndre’ Bembry said. “So just building that confidence, whether it’s the older guys getting back to what they used to do or the younger guys still learning and getting better. So overall I think it was a good night for us even though we lost.”