As an unmistakable sense of despair hung over the Nets, coach Steve Nash reached into the deepest corners of his bench on Saturday and summoned a former star into the twilight. Blake Griffin got rid of the warm-ups from him, along with some cobwebs, and showed up at the scorer’s table.
Griffin, 33, has an injured ankle and a surgically repaired knee that earlier in his career, when he was competing in midsize sedans as one of the faces of the NBA, had a whole chunk of cartilage. But he hadn’t captured an ounce of playing time in 21 days, going back to the regular season. Now, with the Nets trailing the Celtics in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, Nash turned to Blake for something, anything: a spark, a boost, maybe even a miracle.
The Nets were willing to take what they could get, and during a few glorious minutes at Barclays Center, Griffin delivered. He hit a couple of 3-pointers. He fought for rebounds. He even tried to defend Jayson Tatum as the Celtics looked for favorable one-on-one matchups against him.
Miracles alone don’t win playoff series, let alone championships. And while there was a time, not long ago, when the Nets were celebrated as the ultimate superteam that seemed destined for great things, they’ve found out the hard way that titles can’t be bought in stores or cobbled together after months of injury and dysfunction.
“I felt like we didn’t have the right spirit the whole game,” Griffin said after the Nets’ 109-103 loss, which brought them to the brink of an off-season preseason.
Boston, a team that has been on the rise under Ime Udoka, its first-year coach, can wrap up the Nets with a series sweep on Monday night, and it’s probably only a matter of time before this one is over. Anyway: No team in NBA history has come back from a three-game series deficit to none.
That uncomfortable truth aside, the Nets seem well aware that the Celtics are a more complete and cohesive team. Just listen to them. Griffin cited the Celtics’ best defense. (“This is a great defensive team,” he said.) Kevin Durant cited his length. (“I just think they’re bigger than us,” he said.) And Nash cited his ability to drive to the basket. (“We haven’t been able to contain the basketball,” he said.) This is not a winning formula for the Nets.
On Saturday, the Nets offered up a lot of little moments that typified bigger problems. But consider one of his final possessions, as Durant dribbled against the Celtics’ Grant Williams in hopes of creating some space. Finding none, Durant threw a bounced pass to Kyrie Irving that was intercepted by Tatum, who ran for a game-winning dunk. It was the Nets’ 21st and final turnover of the game.
“Bad decision making,” Nash said. “They don’t connect simple passes, and they go in the opposite direction.”
The Celtics have stifled Durant, limiting him to 22 points per game while shooting 36.5 percent. On Saturday, he attempted just 11 shots from the field. His postgame press conference sounded vaguely like therapy.
“I’ve been overthinking, to be honest, this whole series,” he said.
After shooting 4-for-17 from the field in Game 2, Durant had come into Game 3 wanting to find his teammates more often and “let the ball find me” within the flow of the offense, he said. But he was already questioning himself as he examined yet another measly box score in a series full of them.
“I probably should have taken more shots,” he said, adding: “In my mind, I’m just trying to see how I can help everybody. Sometimes, I end up taking myself out of the game.”
Durant wasn’t the only star to struggle. Irving shot 6-for-17 from the field and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. Nash blamed fatigue for some of his problems. Irving is fasting for Ramadan. Durant has been providing plenty of minutes for weeks, first as the Nets were struggling to secure a postseason spot and now as they try to survive against a superior opponent.
“Both of them must be tired,” Nash said. “Fasting can’t be easy, you know? If I go to play tennis and I haven’t eaten, I feel like I’m going to fall. So I can’t imagine how he feels in an NBA playoff game.”
At the same time, the series has offered contrasting approaches to team building. The Celtics’ core is made up largely of players they drafted and developed, a roster highlighted by Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That list also includes Marcus Smart, the NBA’s defensive player of the year, and Robert Williams, the fourth-year center who returned to the rotation Saturday about three weeks after knee surgery.
In that way, the Celtics look back on contenders like the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, teams that developed continuity and chemistry by sticking with their young players.
The Nets went the other way, acquiring big-ticket stars like Durant and Irving while trading their draft picks and prospects. It was championship or failure from the beginning. Sometimes that experiment goes well. The Los Angeles Lakers, after all, won the championship in 2020 following a similar script. But that seems to be the exception these days, and the Lakers have since collapsed into a very expensive, aging dust heap after mortgaging their future to try to win now. The Nets may not be far behind.
The Nets, of course, have had a particularly disjointed season, and even before the start of Game 3, Nash was rattling off a summary list of the challenges his team had faced: Not having Irving for much of the season because he refused to be vaccinated; trade James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers; missing Durant for six weeks due to sprained knee ligaments. Nash said he wasn’t making excuses, but…
“We’ve had very few pockets with everyone able to play,” he said.
At this point, they may only have one of them left.