It was the biggest game Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ever played as teammates, the weight of their Brooklyn experiment hanging in the balance.
And like a 39-year-old Brooklyn hipster in a basement apartment with a Harvard degree, they underachieved.
What a sad way to go out. Durant and Irving each had a measly 16 points in Saturday’s 109-103 loss to the Celtics, leaving the Nets in a 3-0 hole in the first round. As you know, zero NBA teams have overcome that deficit. These Nets, lacking backbone or smart adjustments in this series, don’t look like the team to break that streak.
“Just a sh—ty game, man,” Durant said. “A sh—ty game.”
They lost at home Saturday, lost when it mattered most, lost when they had two off-days to figure out a scheme for Boston’s swarming defense. The Brooklyn disaster ended with the crowd chanting “Let’s Go Celtics” and “MVP” for Jayson Tatum, who was the only true star on either roster with 39 points.
It demonstrated that all that stuff the Nets downplayed actually matters. The regular season, for instance, matters. The Nets treated it as an afterthought until the end, and were forced to give heavy and intense minutes down the stretch to Irving and Durant. Guess who has looked tired in this series? Coach Steve Nash also blamed the fatigue on Irving fasting on Ramadan. The coach didn’t mention a major reason the Nets had to fight for a spot in the play-in tournament — because Irving refused to get vaccinated.
Coaching also matters. Nash was hired with no coaching experience for a win-now window, and he has been outclassed by Celtics coach Ime Udoka. Instead of finding Durant better looks Saturday, the former MVP was even less involved. He was mostly a decoy in the first half while playing off the ball, and then struggled to create any space when presented the opportunity. Durant managed just 11 shots, or eight fewer than teammate Bruce Brown. It was a bizarre strategy and counterintuitive to carrying one of the NBA’s greatest players on the roster.
Durant said he devised the plan after watching film of his disappointing performances in Game 1 and 2.
“The first two games I was trying to be too aggressive. And watching film, a lot of my teammates were open,” Durant said. “My approach to this game was to play off everyone. Get into the flow of the offense and let the ball find me.
“I’ve just been thinking too much this whole series, to be honest.”
Durant was second-guessing himself. Nash never changed the game plan.
“Maybe that was the wrong decision,” Durant said. “Maybe I should’ve been more aggressive to score.”
Roster construction also matters. GM Sean Marks traded for a player, Ben Simmons, with a history of back problems who hadn’t logged a single minute this season. Simmons was again in street clothes Saturday, apparently ready to make his Nets debut in Game 4. Two days too late. Simmons’ entire season has been a painstaking “ramp-up,” a word often used by Nash and now difficult to disassociate with a stair ramp for fragile folks with walkers.
“They’re just bigger than us,” Durant said about the Celtics.
Simmons, by the way, is 6-10.
For all the praise heaped on Marks, the reality is he owns just one playoff series victory in six-plus years as the GM. Billy King accomplished the same for the Nets in fewer seasons. Marks sacrificed his “culture” to appease Durant and Irving, throwing Kenny Atkinson to the curb and overseeing an environment James Harden wanted desperately to ditch.
Now Marks is into his third season after signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It hasn’t gone according to plan.