NEW ORLEANS - This should have been a painless stroll through the Big Easy, particularly with the way the Nets were playing of late and given all the key players the Pelicans were missing.
With New Orleans without Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday paired with just how good the Nets were feeling about themselves, Wednesday night's game had all the makings of a chance for Brooklyn to head into the final two games of this road trip riding a three-game winning streak.
Instead, chalk up a trademark disappointing letdown for a team that can't afford any in its quest to make the playoffs for a third straight season.
Quincy Pondexter's three-pointer with 49.9 seconds left ended any comeback thoughts by the Nets, sending them to a rough 102-96 loss at Smoothie King Center.
Joe Johnson led the Nets (23-32) with 21 points and 10 rebounds and became the 63rd player in NBA history to top 18,000 career points. Thaddeus Young had 19 points and five rebounds and Brook Lopez added 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Pondexter paced the Pelicans (30-27) with 25 points.
Trailing 76-73 at the start of the fourth in a game that had six third-quarter lead changes, the Nets never stopped pressing the snooze button. They fell behind by as many as 11 points, needing a timeout to regroup after Tyreke Evans' reverse layup lifted New Orleans to a 93-82 lead.
The Nets made one final run, getting within 98-93 on Alan Anderson's three-pointer with 1:48 remaining. However, Jarrett Jack, who missed the previous two games nursing a hamstring injury, misfired on a three on the Nets' ensuing possession, ending their last true threat.
A sluggish first quarter had the Nets playing catch-up for nearly the entire first half, forcing them to erase a lead that mushroomed to as many as 11 points. They didn't take their first lead of the night until Young drained a three-pointer with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter, putting them ahead 44-43.
But that cushion was short-lived. Just 21 seconds later, Eric Gordon banged in a three-pointer to give New Orleans the lead again, and the Pelicans took a 53-50 advantage into the break on the strength of Norris Cole's three-pointer.
Considering the Nets had the edge in most of the hustle categories after awakening from their first-quarter slumber, trailing at the half to an undermanned team surely couldn't feel good. Brooklyn had more points in the paint (32-20), second-chance points (13-5) and fast-break points (13-3) and even four fewer turnovers, yet could never put enough of a good run together to stymie the Pelicans.
Rose's injury hits hard. News of Derrick Rose's injury and expected surgery to repair a torn meniscus saddened Jack and Deron Williams. Jack knows Rose well and speaks to him occasionally during the season as well as the offseason. "It hurt man," Jack said. "Great dude. I know how hard he works, puts a lot of pressure on himself to be great, and for something you can't control to keep coming back and biting you a little bit, I know it is definitely frustrating and I definitely want to wish him a speedy recovery." Williams was equally melancholy discussing Rose's latest injury. "Man, it's just tough. I really feel for him," Williams said. "He was just getting back to kind of getting his groove, and it kind of looked like he was getting back to where he was pre-injuries. And then now he's out again. So I feel for him. I'm going to pray for him, and hopefully he can make another recovery and get back out there this year."