The Nets were hoping to play for the NBA championships, and maybe one day they will. But that day is not now, and another abbreviated postseason appearance ended on Monday as 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 Nets, who spent months switching between a motley cast of characters. They were undone by injuries and absences, by a confused roster that failed to dig up a coherent brand of basketball, and, finally, by a superior opponent who put its suffocating grip on two of the best players on the planet.
The Celtics produced the league’s best defense in the regular season and proved it was no fluke against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, was one of coach Steve Nash’s assistants in Brooklyn last season and has applied his institutional knowledge throughout the series.
The Celtics’ second-place finisher is the winner of the first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. Defending champion Bucks have a three-game lead in 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 signed by the Nets in 2020 with no 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, said he intends to re-sign with the team. But he has only appeared in 29 regular season games this season because of his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The season was also cut short by a mid-season trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired James Harden in exchange for a package that included Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and draft picks. Simmons arrived in Brooklyn with a hesitant back and said he had been dealing with mental health issues for months. He never showed up in uniform.
As for the Harden 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 carried it forward, saying it had made the team “better” and “stronger.”
“We accepted the challenge and we all grew from it,” he said. “And at some point, these challenges will provide us with a lot. We hope we don’t have to face so many going forward.”
Durant missed 21 games after spraining his knee in January, then played heavy minutes at the end of 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, seven weeks,” he said, adding, “I’m sure it took a big toll.”
And then 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 for Philadelphia. And Joe Harris, one of the team’s top pitchers, had a bone particle removed from his left ankle in November. When his rehab took a hit, he underwent another surgical procedure in March that ended his season.
Against the Celtics, the Nets missed Harris’ length on defense, along with his ability to stretch the ground as a 3-point threat. As a result, the Celtics could be even more aggressive by putting multiple defenders on Durant whenever he touched the ball.
The series itself was a quick descent into futility. After the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum won Game 1 with a bell-hitting layup, Irving used several profanities to describe his interactions with fans who were sitting on the court in Boston. (The NBA later fined Irving $50,000 for making lewd gestures.) After the Nets were defeated in Game 2, Irving praised the Celtics’ young core, telling reporters that “their time is now.” And after he struggled in Game 3, Durant looked baffled at his post-game press conference. What could he do to keep the series alive? He had no immediate solution.
“Maybe it shoots more, maybe it’s smarter,” he said in a slow, monotone tone. “Get the ball closer to the rim. Play faster. Catch and shoot more.”
Durant said he would try to “find it out” by studying more movies before Game 4.
Now, the Nets have an entire summer to look for answers.