The stage was all set. The opportunity was there for the Nets to finish the night on virtually even footing with the Knicks atop the Atlantic Division.
But instead of capitalizing on the problems of their swooning crosstown rivals, the Nets did some micro-swooning of their own. After playing the Hawks tight for three quarters, the Nets fell apart in the fourth and lost, 105-93, Sunday night at Barclays Center.
"It was a huge game for us, and they played like it was and we didn't," Deron Williams said. "It's a big missed opportunity, especially with the Knicks losing today."
It was a painful loss for multiple reasons. Earlier, the Knicks dropped their fourth straight game, opening the door for the Nets to move into a virtual tie for first for the first time since both teams were 11-4 in late November. It also hurt because it was against a Hawks team fighting the Nets for playoff position. Atlanta gained a split of the season series, preventing the Nets from clinching a potentially important tiebreaker. Finally, it put a sour taste in the Nets' mouths as they begin a stretch of eight road games in 17 days Monday night against the Pistons.
"We positioned ourselves to move up in the standings and do something special," Joe Johnson said. "And we blew it tonight the way we played."
Especially with the way they played at the end of the game. Atlanta outscored the Nets 34-20 in the fourth quarter, making 14 of its first 17 field-goal attempts to blow the game open. Al Horford had 22 points and 11 rebounds and Josh Smith added 21 points, shooting 9-for-14.
It clearly was a game both teams wanted to win. The lead seesawed, with neither team leading by more than six points through the first three quarters.
So how important was it that the Nets were playing for a chance to move into a virtual tie with the Knicks? That turned out to be a bit of an organizational debate before the game.
Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo refused to get terribly excited about the prospect because the teams have played a different number of games. Even with a victory over the Hawks, the Nets would have been .003 behind the Knicks (.594 to .591).
"We're not tied for the division lead," Carlesimo said before the game. "I told you guys today, I don't know how you come up with that nonsense. They had two -- they had two less losses than we do -- so we're not tied with them when they have one less loss. I don't care what the numbers say. You can't be tied with somebody when you have one more loss than they do. It's meaningless."
Nets CEO Brett Yormark apparently didn't see it as meaningless.
"Excited about tonight's Nets game. Chance to be tied for the division lead," Yormark tweeted at 6:53 p.m., which, coincidentally or not, was about five minutes after the end of Carlesimo's pregame news conference.