Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn reacts during the first half...

Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn reacts during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Credit: AP/Corey Sipkin

ATLANTA — This could go south fast, real fast.

Everyone understood that the Nets' goals changed the instant the team agreed to trade Kevin Durant to Phoenix just three days after sending Kyrie Irving to Dallas. Fans who had bought tickets expecting to watch two great players in their prime were now being given an oft-injured Ben Simmons and a bunch of fringe pieces in search of a superstar who can create his own shot.

No one expected this new group to be a contender. Yet, no one expected them to be as bad as they were Friday night in Chicago when the Nets played a clunker of historic proportions en route to a 131-87 loss.

Against a team that went into the All-Star break losing six straight, the Nets scored just 29 points in the first half and trailed by 50 points several times. Afterward, the Nets seemed stunned to be presented with this type of reality check.

“I don’t’ care if we just met yesterday,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who was 0-for-6 against the Bulls. “[To lose by] like 40 points is unacceptable. It’s as simple as that.”

The Nets, who are 3-5 since Irving made his trade demand, enter Sunday’s game against the Hawks at a critical juncture. They are barely clinging to fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

The game against the eighth-place Hawks opens up a four-game stretch against teams who are currently positioned to make the playoffs. The Nets return home to play the Bucks on Tuesday, face the Knicks on Wednesday and then travel to Boston to play a team that beat them by 43 points in Irving’s last game as a Net.

It's very possible that by next weekend the Nets will have fallen out of the top six and into a play-in spot. Should that happen, no one can count on them surviving a sudden-death play-in tournament and actually getting to the real postseason.

“We really have to be the hardest-playing team in the NBA,” coach Jacque Vaughn said after the loss in Chicago. “When we don’t, this can happen . . . I’m going to continue to challenge our guys that this is unacceptable as a group. I want them to own it and respond, but we have to create a mentality of not having an excuse and figuring out a way to get it done.”

It's true that this group of Nets haven’t had much time to figure out who they are, both on offense and defense.

This team has the potential to be formidable on defense with former Maverick Dorian Finney-Smith joining Royce O’Neal, Nic Claxton and Ben Simmons, whenever he returns.

It’s on offense where the Nets should have the biggest concern. Though they have plenty of guys who can knock down shots, they have few who can create their own. Cam Thomas may be the one guy on the roster who can, but his weaknesses on defense are so pronounced that his minutes have been trending down since the new players from Dallas and Phoenix joined the team.

"We're a whole new team now," Mikal Bridges said. "We've got to find our game. It's tough, but we can't make excuses. We've got to find out who we are on both ends.  . . . It starts with tomorrow. We've got to learn from it, watch film, figure out who we are and get better."

The Nets have had just three games with their new team. While their additions are finding their way, those left over from the super team era are likely struggling to come to terms with all the drama that transpired over the past couple of weeks.

“Guys had a lot going on and they had a lot going on before the All-Star break and during the break trying to get their lives in order,” Vaughn said “Now, life’s in order. It’s time. There’s no wasting time. We have to work on speeding up the process.”

Having gotten four first-round picks in exchange for Durant, the Nets future is not quite as dire as the present. This team eventually will get a superstar to go with some of their current players. The biggest question that needs to be answered in the final two months of the season is which of their many wings will be kept and which will end up some place else.

Of course, this culling process could be a lot more fun if this group finds a way together and get to the first round of the playoffs. If not, fans are in for a rough couple months.

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