The NBA’s Eastern Conference is so congested right now that it’s impossible to map out first-round matchups.
What can be said, however, is that the Nets could take a lot of stress off themselves with a win in Atlanta on Saturday.
Their overtime loss to Milwaukee on Thursday night was not only demoralizing but costly; it dropped the Nets into a three-way tie for eighth place with Charlotte and Atlanta. Heading into Saturday, the three-way tiebreak order is 8 Brooklyn (3-2, .600), 9 Charlotte (4-3, .571) and 10 Atlanta (2-4, .333).
An Atlanta win over the Nets on Saturday would give Charlotte the tiebreaker if the three end up in a tie. Charlotte already owns the head-to-head tiebreaker in a two-way tie with the Nets.
There is a big benefit to finishing eighth instead of 10th. The eighth seed receives two chances to earn the one win it needs to get into the playoffs. The ninth- and 10th-place teams must win two games to grab the eighth seed.
One thing the Nets have going for them is a very easy remaining schedule. Atlanta and the Nets' remaining opponents — Houston, the Knicks, Cleveland and Indiana — entered Friday with a combined winning percentage of .411. The Cavaliers are the only playoff team in the bunch, and the Nets have beaten them two of three times this season.
Contrast that with the Hornets, whose final five games include two against Chicago and one against the 76ers, and Atlanta, who after the Nets have to play the Heat and the Raptors.
Of course, if the Nets can’t come up with a way to play better down the stretch than they did Thursday night against Milwaukee, when they gave up a nine-point lead with 3:52 left in regulation, they'll have a problem.
Lots of weird stuff happened down the stretch of that game. Kyrie Irving didn’t score in the final nine minutes. Kevin Durant missed one buzzer-beater at the end of regulation and another at the end of overtime. And Giannis Antetokounmpo hit two big free throws at the end of overtime.
Durant bristled at the suggestion that the Nets' struggle to close out the game had something to do with a lack of chemistry.
“Basketball mistakes, like we all make mistakes in a game, like we’re not gonna play a perfect basketball game?” said Durant, who had 26 points and 11 assists. “And it always sucks when you lose. You try to think back on the mistakes that you made, but you try to play mistake-free basketball .. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of chemistry, or we didn’t play hard, that’s the point of a game. It didn’t fall our way at the end.”
One thing that might help the defensively challenged Nets is the return of Ben Simmons. Simmons, who hasn’t played all season and is suffering from back issues, has been at practice, though it isn’t clear how much he is participating.
Said coach Steve Nash: “Clearly, we would love to have Ben play for us. We will hopefully get him back. At the same time, every day, we can’t put our feet in the air because we don’t know when or if it is going to happen.”