It’s hard to say if the Nets are championship contenders or contenders. The truth, as head coach Steve Nash likes to say, probably lies somewhere in the middle.
When the Nets took defending champion Milwaukee Bucks into overtime just to miss a point, they looked like clear contenders.
And when they sleepwalked through a disappointing 122-115 loss at Atlanta despite a career-high 55 points from Kevin Durant – a game with game-tournament ranking implications, a must win for all intents and purposes – the Nets looked more like a no-deal team being named alongside the Bucks and other teams at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Without Goran Dragic (health and safety protocols), Bruce Brown (flu) and Seth Curry (ankle), the Nets had to play near-perfect basketball. They needed Nash to train 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 had to punch the Hawks in the mouth on their own floor.
None of this happened. The Nets haven’t run any semblance of an offensive set other than getting Durant or Irving the ball and running away, which doesn’t work anymore – especially not on Durant – because, as he said after the loss against the Bucks, the opposing defenses “know what it is. The Nets played no defense, which resulted in a reckless foul, which sent the Hawks to the line 30 times in the first half They didn’t deal the ball, appear on the same page, or move the ball, opting instead to run the attack exclusively through their two stars.
Only one of these stars appeared. Irving shot 7 of 14 from downtown, but only 5 of 18 on all other shots. He missed a good look from downtown in the final minute of the game, a look that would have reduced a five-point deficit to just two. He hit one of those three in the closing seconds of regulation, a look that might as well have been classified as a trash can.
It’s not enough. Not when the team is shorthanded. Not when Mills is as cold as the veins of Hawks star Trae Young, who snagged 36 points and 10 assists on the Nets, including a three so unchallenged he had time to breathe and shimmy before Durant does not close on the other side of the yard. He also sent Mills stumbling with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter before shooting for the dagger three that gave the Hawks a late eight-point lead.
Durant was magnificent. He snagged 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-point shots made on the night. One of those three was one-legged on two Hawks defensemen. He accounted for more than half of the team’s total score. He shot 19 of 28 from the field and missed just two three-shots and two fouls.
But Durant’s greatness is just a band-aid for the Nets’ deeper problems 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 handle their offense. And they’re counting on Durant to carry the load night after night, which is one of the reasons star players team up with each other – so they don’t have to carry the brunt of an entire franchise’s championship aspirations. on their shoulders.
The Nets will soon get several of their absent players back. Health and safety protocols only require six days of isolation for players coming in, but Nash said Dragic was showing symptoms, so there’s a chance he could be isolated for longer. Brown is battling the flu and will be out until he feels better. Curry has been struggling with a lingering problem with his left ankle, but is expected to play there as long as he doesn’t feel in danger of further injury. Recovering these players will help balance a very heavy and unbalanced Nets roster.
But the Nets lack chemistry. You could see it when Durant stamped his foot in frustration when he threw a pass to Nic Claxton, who jumped in a different direction as the ball floated out of bounds. You could see it when Durant boiled in anger towards James Johnson, who missed each of his three wide-open corners, turned the ball over several times and was out of position a few times.
The result could also have been different had Nash played Andre Drummond, who had eight points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block, more minutes than Claxton.
In truth, Saturday’s result delivered a harsh dose of reality for a team that sees itself as a championship contender.
The Nets are not championship contenders or contenders. They’re somewhere in the middle, and that’s not 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’ll be one loss away from a trip to Cancun.