The Nets hoped to compete for the NBA championships, and maybe one day they will. But that day is not now, and another abbreviated postseason appearance ended Monday when the Boston Celtics defeated them, 116-112, to complete a four-game sweep of their first-round playoff series.
It was a fitting end to a disjointed season for the seventh-seeded Nets, who spent months navigating a motley cast of characters. They were undone by injuries and absences, by a jumbled roster that couldn’t figure out a cohesive brand of basketball, and finally by a superior opponent who put his suffocating clamps on two of the best players on the planet.
The Celtics produced the highest-ranked defense in the league in the regular season, and they proved it was no fluke against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, was one of Steve Nash’s assistants in Brooklyn last season and applied Nash’s institutional knowledge throughout the series.
The next step for the second-seeded Celtics is the winner of the first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks. The defending champion Bucks have a three-game-to-one lead entering Game 5 of their series on Wednesday.
The Nets, who had the second-highest payroll in the league this season, will try to recalibrate. Nash, who was hired by the Nets in 2020 without any head coaching experience, has now presided over two early postseason exits. (The Nets lost to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.) Irving, who can become an unrestricted free agent, has said that he intends to re-sign with the team. But he appeared in only 29 regular-season games this season due to his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The season was also interrupted by a mid-season trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired James Harden for a package that included Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and draft picks. Simmons arrived in Brooklyn with back problems and said he had been dealing with mental health issues for months. He never appeared in uniform.
As for Harden’s experiment, it was a failure. Harden, Durant and Irving played together in just 16 games over two seasons, including the playoffs.
Before Game 4, Nash reflected on the Nets’ tumultuous season and put a spin on it, saying he had made the team “better” and “stronger.”
“We accepted the challenge and we all grew from it,” he said. “And at some point, those challenges will give us a lot. However, we hope not to have to face so many in the future.”
Durant missed 21 games after spraining his knee in January, then played many minutes late in the regular season as the team battled for a spot in the play-in tournament. After Durant attempted just 11 field goals against the Celtics in Game 3, Nash acknowledged that fatigue may have played a role.
“Kevin had to play more than 40 minutes for more than five weeks after missing six or seven weeks,” he said, adding: “I’m sure that has cost him a lot.”
And there were the highly publicized absences from the team. Simmons watched the first three games of the series from the bench in street clothes. Harden now plays in Philadelphia. And Joe Harris, one of the team’s best shooters, had a bone chip removed from his left ankle in November. When his rehab hit a setback, he underwent another surgical procedure in March that ended his season.
Against the Celtics, the Nets lost Harris’s length on defense along with his ability to stretch the floor as a 3-point threat. As a result, the Celtics could be even more aggressive by putting multiple defenders on Durant every time he touches the ball.
The series itself was a rapid descent into futility. After the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum won Game 1 with a buzzer-beating layup, Irving used various profanities to describe his interactions with fans sitting courtside in Boston. (The NBA later fined Irving $50,000 for making obscene gestures.) After the Nets were beaten in Game 2, Irving praised the Celtics’ young core, telling reporters that “his moment of his is now.” And after he struggled in Game 3, Durant seemed flummoxed in his postgame news conference. What could he do to keep the series alive? I had no immediate solutions.
“Maybe I’ll shoot more, maybe I’ll be smarter,” he said in a slow, monotone. “Catch the ball closer to the rim. Play faster. Catch and shoot more.”
Durant said he would try to “work it out” by studying more movies before Game 4.
Now the Nets have a whole summer to search for answers.