It’s hard to tell if the Nets are championship contenders or pretenders. The truth, as head coach Steve Nash likes to say, is probably somewhere in the middle.
When the Nets took the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks to overtime just to fall short by one point, they looked like undoubted contenders.
And when they sleepwalked through a disappointing 122-115 loss in Atlanta despite a career-high 55 points from Kevin Durant — a game with play-in tournament seeding implications, a must-win for all intents and purposes — the Nets looked more like a team with no business being named next to the Bucks and other teams atop the Eastern Conference.
“We didn’t really play a good ball game. I can’t sugarcoat it,” Nash said. “We didn’t play a great game and not enough guys played well.”
“Our guys are disappointed. We know we can play better. We know we can’t make excuses. We’ve been hurt all the time.”
With no Goran Dragic (health and safety protocols), no Bruce Brown (flu) and no Seth Curry (ankle), the Nets needed to play almost perfect basketball. They needed Nash to out-coach Nate McMillan. They needed Kyrie Irving to play like a $140 million player. They needed Patty Mills to play like an Olympic bronze medalist. And they needed to punch the Hawks in the mouth on their home floor.
None of that happened. The Nets ran no semblance of an offensive set other than get Durant or Irving the ball and get out of the way, which doesn’t work anymore — especially not on Durant — because as he said after the loss to the Bucks, opposing defenses “know what it is.” The Nets didn’t play any defense, which resulted in careless fouling, which sent the Hawks to the line 30 times in the first half alone.
“That decided the game and it’s not ‘cause of the refs,” Durant said. “It’s ‘cause we’re reaching and being undisciplined.”
They didn’t take care of the ball, didn’t appear on the same page, and didn’t move the ball, instead opting to run the offense exclusively through their two stars.
Only one of those stars showed up. Irving shot 7-of-14 from downtown but just 5-of-18 on all other shots for a deceptive 31 points. He missed a good look from downtown in the game’s final minute, a look that would have cut a five-point deficit to just two.
It’s not enough. Not when the team is shorthanded. Not when Mills is as ice cold as the veins in Hawks star Trae Young, who hung 36 points and 10 assists on the Nets, including one three so uncontested that he had time to take a breath and shimmy before Durant closed out from the other side of the court. He also sent Mills stumbling with under 30 seconds to go in the fourth quarter before pulling up for the dagger three that gave the Hawks a late eight-point lead.
Durant was magnificent. He hung his third 50-point game of the season — his third 40-point game in his last four games — and set a new career-high with eight three-pointers made on the night. One of those threes was one-legged over two Hawks defenders. He accounted for more than half the team’s total scoring. He shot 19-of-28 from the field and only missed two threes and two foul shots.
“My points are gonna come,” Durant said. “My shots are gonna come. But the little stuff that we do, we’ve gotta be on the same page.”
But Durant’s greatness is only a bandaid on the Nets’ deeper issues as they approach a sudden-death elimination situation with the play-in tournament just four games away. The Nets are flawed from roster construction to how they run their offense. And they are relying on Durant to carry the load night after night.
The Nets will get several of their absent players back soon. The health and safety protocols only require six days of isolation for players who enter, but Nash said Dragic is exhibiting symptoms, so there’s a chance he’s isolated longer. Brown is battling the flu and will be out until he’s feeling better. Curry is dealing with a lingering left ankle issue, but he is expected to play through it as long as he doesn’t feel in jeopardy of further injuring it. Getting those players back will help provide balance to a top-heavy and lopsided Nets roster.
But the Nets lack chemistry. You could see it when Durant stomped his feet in frustration when he lobbed a pass to Nic Claxton, who jumped in a different direction as the ball floated out of bounds. You could see it when Durant seethed with anger in the direction of James Johnson, who missed each of his wide-open corner threes, turned the ball over a number of times and was out of position on a few occasions.
The result may also have been different had Nash played Andre Drummond, who had eight points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block, more minutes than he did Claxton.
In truth, Saturday’s result delivered a harsh dose of reality for a team that fancies itself a championship contender.
The Nets aren’t championship contenders or pretenders. They’re somewhere in the middle, and that’s not good enough. And now they find themselves the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. If they don’t improve to seventh or eighth by the end of the regular season, they will be one loss away from a trip to Cancun.
Source: Berkshire mont