When the Nets (47-24) arrived Sunday night at Barclays Center for their regular-season finale against the Cavaliers (22-49), they knew exactly what they had to do — win to clinch the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs or get beaten and lose control of their destiny to the Bucks (46-25), who could tie for second with a victory in Chicago and would get the No. 2 seed because they own the tiebreaker over the Nets.
With a victory over the Cavs, the Nets actually had a chance to tie the 76ers (48-23) for first in the Eastern Conference, but Philadelphia, which finished with a home game against the Magic Sunday, already had clinched the No. 1 seed because they, too, held the tiebreaker over the Nets.
With home-court advantage at stake should they face the Bucks in the second round of the playoffs, it seemed likely coach Steve Nash would start the Big 3 — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden — in the second game of a back-to-back set. He indicated as much following Saturday’s win over the Bulls when that superstar trio played together for only the eighth time all season and their first game together since Feb. 13. They combined to score a mere 39 points Saturday.
"It’s just a matter of how they come through, how they feel in the morning and are they available," Nash said on Saturday.
Durant certainly made his feelings clear. "I expect to play," he said. "Just for rhythm and just to get back on the court again, I want to play. I trust the coaches and training staff to make the right decision, but as a basketball player, I definitely want to be out there regardless."
The Nets used their franchise-record 37th different starting lineup against the Bulls on Saturday, teaming Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown with the Big 3. Joe Harris (sore hip) was projected to miss his third straight game after playing the first 69 of the season to rest for the playoffs, so it figured Nash would go with the same starting group against the Cavaliers.
All season, Nash has deflected talk about the playoffs and seeding as he tried to navigate through a minefield of injuries. But with the situation clearly defined heading into the last game, he conceded its importance.
"We just have one game to win, and we control our own destiny as far as the seedings go," Nash said. "We think that’s positive. If we can win that game, it’s much better being the second seed.
"It’s a little advantage we can create, and it just comes down to concentration and trying to close this deal [Sunday]. Yeah, we definitely want it."
Although the Big 3 attract all the attention and need more time together to prepare for the playoffs, the contribution of the role players was evident in the win over the Bulls. Irving sat out the entire fourth quarter, and Durant, Harden and Griffin all failed to scored in limited time. The Nets got 22 of their 26 fourth-quarter points from the bench topped by Jeff Green's nine points. No doubt, they will play a critical playoff role.
Harden met with members of the supporting cast during the Nets’ previous five-game road trip to emphasize the importance of their jobs.
"We know that myself, Kevin and Ky are going to do what we do at a high level, but I wanted those guys to know that they’re very, very important to this run that we’re about to go on," he said. "Each individual guy . . . It can be a different game they win, whether it’s a rebound, a shot, a defensive play, a box-out or whatever. They’re very, very valuable, and we have to do it together. It’s been going great since then."