By Lenn Robbins
If nothing else, the Brooklyn Nets are an uber talented team boasting an even greater ability to spin its own narrative so impressively even skeptics begin to nod their heads in agreement.
When the Nets acquired James Harden in mid-January and proceeded to lose back-to-back games in Cleveland, they assured the masses, and maybe themselves, that it would take a little time for the pieces to mesh.
And when Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missed multiple games to due to injury, well, just wait until we’re all healthy, was the company line. (We’re still waiting on that, by the way.)
Such spin-doctoring is easy. Until now.
The regular season ends a week from Sunday and the Nets are on a season-long, four-game losing streak. The losses have been to quality teams – Portland, Milwaukee twice, and Thursday night in a Dallas, a 113-94 setback to the Mavs, but quality teams is all one faces in the playoffs.
The Nets (43-24) are one-half game ahead of the Bucks for the No.2 seed and two and one-games behind the 76ers for the top spot. The Bucks have won four straight. The Sixers have won six straight. Again, the Nets have lost four straight and they play at the Nuggets on Mother’s Day.
In what has become the norm for Brooklyn, they didn’t have their Big Three against Dallas. In fact, the Big Three have played a total of 186 minutes together as Nets. That’s less time than the Kris Humphries-Kim Kardashian marriage lasted.
Harden remains out with a hamstring injury and we might not see the bearded wonder on the court until the playoffs begin.
As we’ve known since that January 14th date, when the Nets traded their future to the Rockets for Harden, the playoffs became the only season that matters for this team. Either they win the first NBA title in franchise history or they find a place in the tomb of Greatest Disappointing Teams in New York History.
Once again, the Nets were remarkably convincing in their latest narrative after their 24th loss against 43 wins.
“I think it’s good we have those tests now,” said Irving after a 45-point masterpiece. “Those challenges, you know. It’s been too easy at times. So, it’s good.”
No, it’s not good. It’s never good to post your longest losing streak this late in the season. It’s never good to have one of your superstars spending more time in the trainer’s room than on the court. It’s never good when most of the other teams that are playoff-bound are fine-tuning and winning and you’re majoring in self-analysis but minoring in losing.
“I’m glad it’s happening now for us instead of in a couple weeks, and hopefully we build off of this and keep growing,” said Durant. “And I hope we feel this pain, I guess, from losing, feeling like we’re not where we want to be.”
The Nets aren’t close to where they want to be and depending on Harden’s return, they will enter the playoffs with the Big Three having played just seven games together. The Nets went 5-2 in those games which is cause for optimism except for this one truth:
The brand of basketball contested in the playoffs is completely different species than the one played in the regular season.
As talented as these healthy Nets are, they have yet to strap on the playoff armor and go nose-to-nose with the likes of, oh, the Heat, a possible first-round playoff foe and a tough group of gladiators. Harden has made a remarkable transition to point guard but again, can he be a remarkable point guard in the playoffs when Patrick Beverly or Marcus Smart or LeBron James is attached to his hip?
“You know, we’re not a perfect basketball club,” Irving said. “I don’t think we’d be doing ourselves a great service if we weren’t honest. You know, we haven’t played well in terms of spurts throughout the game, especially when it matters.”
Almost every minute of every playoff game matters. This is the test these Nets have not taken. Can they play with intensity for the full 48? Can the Big Three agree on who is the shot taker on that last possession. Is there enough depth considering all the Nets lost in the Harden trade?
And then, of course, there is the second biggest question facing the Nets in the playoffs. Rookie coach Steve Nash has never coached an NBA playoff game, no less a Game 7. He has managed these superstars and the injury bug admirably.
But the fact remains that Nash is in tightest of spots – coaching a superstar-laden team whose season will only be considered a success if it wins it all. Perhaps these losses to Portland, Milwaukee and Dallas have given the Nets a morsel’s taste of playoff basketball but not nearly a full helping.
“We have no common experiences together in that setting,” Nash said. “And so, these are a little bit of a dress rehearsal, when you’re playing playoff teams, teams that need wins that are really coming out to try to win these games and play at a high level. So it was good for us.”
We’ll find out soon enough.