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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Big 3 derailed by health and Nets' championship window could be closing

Nets guard James Harden looks on while warming

Nets guard James Harden looks on while warming up before Game 7 in the NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs at Barclays Center on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was a grand experiment. And it failed.

When Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden masterminded the building of their own super-team in Brooklyn, they weren’t just pursuing another NBA title.

They were chasing personal fulfillment and the challenge of trying to win it all with a team that they, not some metrics-happy general manager, had the biggest role in creating.

The result was the most star-laden and talented offensive team in the NBA — and maybe in the history of the NBA.

Yet injuries or not, none of that mattered one iota Saturday night as the Nets could not get out of the second round of the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the Eastern Conference finals after handing the Nets a devastating 115-111 overtime loss in Game 7 of their conference semifinal series.

The Nets are headed into an offseason in which they will have to examine their early exit, decide how much injuries played a role in it and determine exactly what the team needs to do to get better.

"It hurts. It hurts bad. I hurt so much for these guys," coach Steve Nash said. "They gave it everything they had."

No one gave more than Durant, who had not ended his postseason this early since 2013, when his Oklahoma City Thunder team lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the Western Conference semifinals.

The sole healthy member of the Big 3, Durant fell just short of carrying the Nets to the next round. After scoring 49 points to lead the Nets to a Game 5 win, he scored 48 Saturday night and hit the shot that sent the game into overtime.

Both he and Harden played all 53 minutes in Saturday’s game, and fatigue clearly seemed to be a factor in the overtime period.

Durant’s final shot of the game, which would have tied it with three-tenths of a second left in overtime, fell well short of the rim.

It was a crushing ending, considering that the Nets were a Vegas favorite to win the title this season. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the Nets were in a do-or-die contest, considering how well they played in the first seven games of the postseason.

After rolling over Boston in five games, the Nets had their Big 3 healthy and looked to be heading deep into the playoffs.

They managed to win the first two games of this series despite the fact that Harden aggravated a hamstring injury in the first minute of Game 1 and did not play again until Game 5. After Irving went down with a gruesome-looking sprained ankle in Game 4, the team had to rely too heavily on Durant, their only healthy star.

"If we’re not injured and me and Ky are on the floor, it’s a totally different kind of conversation," said Harden, who had 22 points. "I’m sure the front office will try to bring in more players around me, KD and Ky and try to improve."

They are going to have to because the window for capitalizing on this talent is finite. Durant will be 33 at the start of next season, Harden will be 32 and Irving will be 29. The Nets gave up a chunk of their future to bring Harden to the team, so they need to seize their chance while it is here.

In the meantime, Nets fans will have to wait. After years of putting up with the arrogance of Knicks fans, Nets fans had every reason to believe that something big could happen for their team, that they could not only get to the NBA Finals but be the first New York team since the Knicks in 1973 to win an NBA title.

Instead, they finished the season going just one round further than the Knicks.

The grand experiment failed.

New York Sports