Steve Nash called timeout midway through the fourth quarter Thursday night, putting a stop to a 14-0 avalanche that turned a five-point deficit into a 19-point margin and urged his team for one more push, a chance to launch a heroic comeback against the Milwaukee Bucks and end the Eastern Conference senifinals series.
Less than two minutes later the Brooklyn Nets coach was calling time again, sending in five players from the end of the bench, acknowledging the truth – the Nets had wasted this chance and had better start resting up for Saturday night’s Game 7.
You couldn’t blame Nash for looking ahead. With this chance in front of them the Nets just didn’t have it, never leading for a moment in the game. Chasing all night, there never was the sort of inevitable sense that Kevin Durant would take over or the defense had it all figured out, that with the Conference Finals in front of them they would put forth their best effort and move forward.
Now they are left to regroup. They can point to Game 7 and enjoy the notion that it’s at home, the result of navigating through an odd, disjointed season that left them with the second-best record in the East. The Nets are 6-0 at Barclays in the postseason and have won nine straight games there overall, not losing since April 30 on their home floor.
"It’s all or nothing at this point," Joe Harris said. "It’s the biggest game of the season."
It’s really the only game. The expectations put in place since the summer of 2019 when the Nets signed Durant and Kyrie Irving were never about second place in the East or a spot in the conference semifinals. This was a championship gamble the Nets made, pushing all of their chips in earlier this season when they dealt away a surplus of young talent to add James Harden, then playing fantasy basketball roster-building by welcoming LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
Aldridge retired because of health issues. Irving has been sidelined since Game 4 when he suffered a sprained right ankle and there has been no update that seems optimistic. Irving remained in New York rather than travel with his team so he can continue to rehabilitate his ankle. Harden is clearly hobbled by the hamstring injury suffered just 43 seconds into Game 1.
They can climb onto Durant’s slender shoulders one more time and hope he can lift them again. But after Thursday’s flat performance, it seemed that a team built with a trio of stars and a roster stuffed with talent was relying a little too much on hope while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday looked like they had figured something out.
"I just think we were in a situation tonight, guys were I think a little fatigued," Nash said after the game. "We didn't have our best stuff. And we just were facing maybe a few too many things that were going against us in the big picture. So that wasn't our best stuff. I don't know that it was chemistry. There's definitely aspects to our game that are difficult when there's so much change and so much newness. But tonight, I just didn't feel like we had the bounce in the step and that thrust that it takes sometimes to play offensive basketball."
Were they questioning themselves there? It’s hard to argue with Nash that there would be fatigue after the work Durant has done to get them to this point in the series or that Harden put forth since pushing his way back into the lineup.
Before the game Nash acknowledged that rest for the stars would be ideal – but unrealistic.
"I think we let it ride and try to be adaptable," Nash said. "If we can steal some minutes on the bench, perfect. If we can’t we’ll have to make some decisions. There is no perfect answer here. We’ve got to try to win the game. At the same time if you have the chance to give them some rest you want to do so. That chance may or may not come."
It wasn’t according to the plan that it came with 4:45 left in the game, Durant, Harden and the rest of the starters heading to the bench. Durant threw on a sweatshirt. Harden sat on the bench peeling off the kinesiology tape from the back of his leg.
They may not have looked like a group with an answer. But somehow they have managed this year no matter the circumstances.
"It’s been a dogfight this entire time and you can’t let the emotional toll of losing this game affect how we play Game 7," Harris said. "We’ve got to come out with confidence and just let it rip."
Added Harden: "With everything we’ve been through we have the second seed for this particular reason. And we’ve just gotta go out there and hoop at home. One game."