In the end, it was just too much to ask.
It was just too much to expect the Nets mishmash of players to do something that last season’s team of superstars couldn’t pull off. It was too absurd to expect that a group that was thrown together a little more than two months ago could beat a genuine contender — even if that contender didn’t have MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
For the second time in two years, the Nets ended the season with a first-round sweep on their home floor as the Philadelphia 76ers closed out the series with a 96-88 win in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference series.
Yet, on the embarrassment meter, this sweep didn’t even belong on the same gauge as the sweep the Nets suffered here last season when a team that featured two of the best players in the game in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics.
“Getting swept is trash. It’s not a good feeling,” said Nic Claxton, the only Nets starter Saturday who was on last season’s team. “I wish we could have gotten a win, but you always have to look at the positives. For this organization to be put in this situation, I think we did well finishing out the season.”
This situation is a season so bizarre, so drama-filled that it merits a quick review.
Since being swept by the Celtics last spring, the Nets weathered trade demands by Irving and Durant in the summer, a coaching change in the first month of the season, and an eight-game suspension by Irving after he put a link to an antisemitic film on his social media accounts. They too had an 18-2 streak in December and January that ended after Durant suffered a knee injury and — most importantly — the complete reconfiguration of their team after Irving and Durant demanded a trade.
The team that the Nets took into the postseason was a conglomeration of players from three clubs — the Nets, Phoenix and Dallas — that had just two months to get used to one another after they were thrown together at the trade deadline. For a while, it looked like the Nets were going to drop out of the playoffs all together. But they won five of seven down the stretch and managed to avoid the play-in, something that the 2021-22 Nets could not say.
“I told them they should feel extremely proud when they walk around the borough of Brooklyn,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said Saturday. “. . . The way we competed. We didn’t make excuses all year. We figured out how to stay together. That locker room was together until the end of the game.
“I said it’s an opportunity for us to grow from this, to re-establish, to re-energize, to put our culture back in a place where it needs to be going forward, and a lot of guys in that locker room are going to be part of that. I’m thankful for that.”
The next few months will be all about deciding who will be a part of that as the Nets begin to recover from its Durant-Irving hangover.
There’s no doubt that the team has found the right coach for this group in Vaughn, who began the year as Steve Nash’s assistant and proved over the course of the season that he can coach both superstars and budding stars. The Nets also got something special in Mikal Bridges, who has blossomed from a supporting player in Phoenix to a star for the Nets. Phoenix teammate Cam Johnson has also been impressive in the way he approached the playoffs perhaps because he was a part of the Suns team that went to the finals last year.
One big question could be the future of Claxton, who signed a two-year, $20 million contract last summer which is starting to look like a pretty good bargain. In some ways, this season has been harder on Claxton than anyone as he had every reason to expect he was going to be plying his trade next to Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons. Instead, Irving is now out of the playoffs, Durant is in Phoenix and Simmons with his sore back is watching from the Nets bench.
Claxton didn’t get the deep title run he expected to have at the start of the season, but he seems to have adjusted to the changing reality and the possibilities the team has in the post-Kyrie/KD era.
Said Claxton: “We just got to regroup, figure out what pieces we’ll have here next year and keep it going.”