Was there something inspiring and feel-good about all this? Sure. The Nets trailed the 76ers by 22 points with under 8 ½ minutes left at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. The irregulars were in, the Sixers’ regulars were either sitting or already had checked out. And the Nets came back. And back. And back.
They got it to three a couple of times, never got closer. Nice job by Alize Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Bruce Brown, making the 123-117 final score respectable, playing hard, playing with heart, playing with grit, playing with …
Wait a second: When did this become a KNICKS GAME???
“We feel good about the way we played tonight, we felt really good for each other,” said coach Tom Thib … um, make that Steve Nash. “It shows our connectivity and our growth as a group.”
As Charlie Brown might put it: “Sigh.”
Again, it’s wonderful to see the Nets’ reserves get a moment. It was fun watching the 76ers try to restart the motor after they’d shut it down a tick or two early.
But that wasn’t what this was supposed to be about. This was Nets-Sixers. This was 1 and 1A in the East, only the sixth time teams tied with the best conference record have played each other this late in a season since 1977. This was some high-level, high-octane, high-intensity stuff we’re talking about.
In theory, anyway.
But Kevin Durant was out. And James Harden was out. And LaMarcus Aldridge was out. And Blake Griffin was out. And, look, we can quibble with the Nets’ decision to play Durant on Tuesday night in Minneapolis rather than Wednesday in Philly. His presence on the court would’ve elevated things significantly, even if the others had shown up in civvies. We are still reminded that the Nets are, in this way, a unique experience in the history of the NBA.
The Nets are a title contender on spec.
That doesn’t take away their record, which at 37-18 is still second-best in the East, or that they’ve figured out ways to win all season even with various segments of their team sitting idle. That only adds to the curiosity factor, as does the Big 3 of Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving having only played in the same game seven times.
This, however, is remarkable:
It is at least a possibility that the Nets’ projected starting five for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs — Irving, Durant, Harden, Aldridge and Joe Harris — will have played a total of zero minutes together once the postseason starts.
Read that again: Zero minutes. Zero games. Zero possessions.
“We may not get any games with our whole roster,” Nash had said philosophically. “I don’t want us to worry about things that aren’t in our control.”
There was some justifiable outrage Wednesday afternoon at Durant’s absence. By doing what they did — playing Durant 27 minutes in a 30-point walkover win against the terrible Timberwolves and sitting him against the Sixers — the Nets proved they are committed to two unpopular truths:
- Their strict management of Durant’s return season supersedes all else.
- They are not obsessed with the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage, because Nash suggested they ultimately played Durant on Tuesday to make sure of one win in two nights.
So why not make that last goal winning in Philly, taking over the top slot, guaranteeing the tiebreaker (which the Sixers now own), and maybe allowing two-thirds of the Big 3 some reps against a team they are almost certainly going to face across seven games and two weeks in the next two months?
“Nothing is straightforward, nothing is linear,” Nash said. “We’ve won a lot of games shorthanded. You can overthink it sometimes.”
That might explain why, with the Nets back in the game, Nash never actually summoned Irving (37 points, nine assists in 33 minutes) to help finish off the comeback, saying he wanted to reward the walk-ons.
In other words: “We started the game not caring if we won or lost, why should we change our mind at the end?”
Look, maybe none of this will matter. The Nets’ talent and depth is rich and undeniable. Maybe they will simply out-talent the league across the postseason; they are certainly the one team that can do that. Maybe you really can win a title on spec.