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Brooklyn Nets Turn Focus Forward

"Everyone here is fired up to get back to work," says Nash

On the brink of the improbable, the Nets were short by an impossibly thin margin.

A wounded Nets team had gotten to this point, down by two with six seconds to go in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Opening the playoffs with the roster in the best condition they’d seen all season, the Nets had gone through the Boston Celtics in five games with the finally reconvened triumvirate of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving leading an offense operating at terrifying levels.

But Harden had gone out of the Bucks series in the opening minute with a hamstring strain. Irving landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in Game 4, spraining his ankle. With Irving sidelined, Harden pushed himself back onto the court in Game 5, clearly limited even as he played all but eight minutes over the final three games.

He and Durant had played every minute of Game 7. Now Durant caught the crosscourt inbounds pass from Jeff Green and drove P.J. Tucker towards the top of the key. He pivoted and spun back to his right, firing, connecting. The Brooklyn bench leaped, the arena roared, the scoreboard said the game was tied. Durant’s toes had kissed the line for a game-tying 2-pointer from 23 feet away rather than a go-ahead 3-pointer.

That was the difference a season came down to after the Bucks held on for the 115-111 win in overtime.

“You're missing Kyrie, James is on one leg, you have to understand it's not the same,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “And so I still thought we could win it and clearly I think we proved tonight that we could. Game could have gone either way. You always know there's a chance. Anything could happen. I think we just faced one too many obstacles this year because I thought our guys gave it everything they had."

The obstacles that arose in the playoffs were familiar, but the Nets had thrived despite them all season long. In his return from the Achilles’ injury that sidelined him for the entire 2019-20 season, Durant’s performance was magnificent, but he was limited to 35 games, primarily due to a hamstring strain. Harden played 36 games after being acquired a month into the season. Irving played 54 games in the shortened 72-game season, and the trio played just eight games and 202 minutes together before the playoffs started.

The team shifted shape repeatedly throughout the year, primarily due to the blockbuster deal for Harden and navigating the injury concerns. They went through 27 players and 38 different starting lineups, both franchise records.

None of it stopped them from setting an NBA record with an offensive rating of 117.3 points per 100 possessions. They were first in the league in field goal percentage (49.4) and second in 3-point percentage (39.2) and points per game (118.6).

The 48 wins were the third-most in the franchise’s NBA history and the .667 winning percentage was a franchise record. Durant, Harden and Irving were all selected for the All-Star Game, the first time three Nets had been chosen for the game. Irving earned an All-NBA Third Team honor, the first Net with an All-NBA selection since Jason Kidd in 2004.

“We had an unbelievable season where we had every right to be extremely proud of,” said Joe Harris after Game 7. “It’s one of those things where everybody in the locker room, we left it all out there. Obviously it’s an unfortunate outcome, but for the group of guys that will be around and coming back, that’s a motivating factor going forward, a motivating factor in the offseason, but I think to a man, it’s not like anything was discussed collectively or anything like that. There’s obviously a difficult mood and emotions just kind of everybody’s taking their own time in terms of how they’re dealing with this. But individually, you talk to Steve, you talk to other people. I think a lot of us, especially me, hoping that I’ll be around for a while, this thing is far from over.”

“I think we have guys that are extremely motivated, passionate about what they do, unselfish,” said Nash. “They sacrifice, they have a lot of character. I think they will regroup, and they’ll be ready to go again. It’s been a really difficult year. We had a lot thrown at us and they survived it in incredible fashion. They’ll get themselves ready to go again next year.”

It’s been an eventful two years for the franchise dating back to the summer 2019 arrivals of Irving and Durant, with the understanding that Durant would miss the 2019-20 season. Irving ended up playing just 20 games as well due to a shoulder injury. A coaching change was made. A season was suspended and resumed, and the pandemic fallout carried over into a 2020-21 season that started late in empty arenas.

The Nets had to reinvent themselves multiple times along the way, but figuring things out on the fly they still won 34 of their last 46 games, a .739 winning percentage over the final three months. The season left them with a belief in what is still to come.

“If we can refine and improve what we do, why can’t we take this with us, grow, learn and be back with even more resolve, more of an understanding of what it takes to win,” said Nash. “So that’s definitely the silver lining is what we can take from this, what we can add to our toolbox and to our collective mentality and culture. I think we all feel heartbroken that we’re not still playing, but at the same time, we have a lot of positivity around what’s capable here, what this group is able to accomplish, and the path towards it is exciting. It’s not daunting. I think everyone here is fired up to get back to work and build this thing back up and even stronger.”

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