MIAMI - The Nets have spent two seasons trying to make a mark on the New York sports scene, armed with buckets of money from their billionaire owner, star players, cool uniforms and a brand built on the world's trendiest borough.
Wednesday night, at last, they had their best chance to make a dent and set up an event tomorrow night unlike any before in the history of basketball in Brooklyn.
Instead, they continued a postseason pattern of late-game belly-flops, blowing a seemingly safe lead and losing to the Heat, 96-94, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This is not what owner Mikhail Prokhorov bargained for when he spent $180 million in wages and taxes, plus three future first-round draft picks, to try to win a championship one year earlier than he promised to back in 2010.
Now his team will enter the offseason full of uncertainty, with no assurance things will be better in 2014-15.
"It's tough, because obviously we thought this was a game we should've won and gone back to Brooklyn," said the Nets' Joe Johnson, the best player on the court most of the night. "This team was assembled to go deep in the playoffs, win a championship."
Poor Johnson. He was spectacular, nearly at the level of the Heat's LeBron James in Game 4, scoring 34 points on 15-for-23 shooting, and seemingly rescuing the Nets by ending a 12-0 Heat run with a three-pointer that made it 95-94.
James said Johnson "torched" him all night.
Then came the fatal, final play, on which Johnson took an inbounds pass with the Nets down 96-94 and had Ray Allen strip him from behind, then James strip him from the front, both cleanly.
"Very frustrating," he said. "I just never could really get hold of the ball for whatever reason. It was tough."
Said coach Jason Kidd: "We had the ball in the right guy's hands and we just couldn't complete the play and they did."
So on a night on which the Knicks suffered a blow when Steve Kerr opted to coach the Warriors, the Nets had a chance to grab some positive attention by winning a game few in the basketball world thought they could and putting a huge scare into the two-time defending NBA champs.
Instead, they are through, with a murky near future. Pierce is a free agent-to-be and Kevin Garnett should strongly consider retirement, if he hasn't already. (He did not speak to reporters after the game.)
It was a weird season, marked by an awful start and a powerful recovery starting in January. The Nets were good, and they were interesting. But they never were great.
Give the Nets credit for impressive efforts in each of their last two losses to the Heat. And give them blame for not getting the job done.
"Things sometimes have to go perfectly when you play against the best team in the NBA," Pierce said. "We almost put together a perfect game, but we came up short."
So what did it all mean? Fair question. The Nets sold a bunch of tickets and a bunch of merchandise and are far more relevant than they were in New Jersey. But they still have a long way to go, and no clear path to getting there.
Asked to characterize the season, Kidd said, "It was great. We were [in the] second round. No one wants to lose or the season to come to an end, but to get to the second round is something for us to build on."
For most teams, that would be a fair statement. But the Nets were going for broke this season, and broken they are.