As the final seconds of the season were ticking down, the ball was where it always was meant to be: in the hands of Kevin Durant.
Now, as that shot unleashed from his hand, arcing toward the rim, think back. Go past the four minutes and 59 seconds of overtime that had wound down. Continue past the exhausting fatigue of 48 tension-filled minutes of regulation in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Go back through all the trials and tribulations that the Brooklyn Nets went through this season and all the way back to the day in the summer of 2019 when Durant and Kyrie Irving signed on.
This was what you dreamed of that day: the game’s greatest scorer launching a shot that, like the 48 points before it on this night, just had to go in and send the Nets on their way to the next round, their championship aspirations still on target.
But while you were thinking, the ball never quite made it to the rim. Understandably, Durant was running on fumes, having played every second of this game, just as he had in Game 5. Get a little shiver in your veins as you think about how those all-in signings of Durant and Irving were not enough, and that Nets general manager Sean Marks opted to mortgage much of the future to add James Harden to the mix.
And now, you’re back. The shot from Durant, as he twists himself like a golfer trying to will a shot into the fairway, falls short of the rim and bounces harmlessly out of bounds. Amid the sweaty, packed Barclays Center, there suddenly is stunned silence, and the Bucks begin their celebration. Tenths of a second remain, but the reality is setting in that with a 115-111 Game 7 win, they were moving on and the Nets' championship dreams were done.
"I knew it was possible, especially with all the stuff we faced," Nets coach Steve Nash said when it was over. "You're missing Kyrie, James is on one leg. You have to understand it's not the same. And so I still thought we could win it and clearly, I think we proved tonight that we could. The game could have gone either way. You always know there's a chance. Anything could happen. I think we just faced one too many obstacles this year because I thought our guys gave it everything they had."
As you think back now to all of the moves, all of the franchise-building, do you get a little fear in the back of your mind, a little image of Billy King and the team he built here? King has been vilified for years, pushed out of the front office jobs he held for so long, because he went all-in, dealing away the franchise’s future to trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. It was understandable, with the franchise shifting to Brooklyn, they wanted to change the image of the team and compete for the hearts and minds of New York basketball fans.
But the price: an assortment of forgettable contracts, but picks — so many picks and swaps — that turned out to be Jaylen Brown and a No. 1 overall pick that Boston traded again to get Jayson Tatum.
That group never did catch on well enough to establish any foothold in New York. The highlight was an Eastern Conference Semifinal exit in the first season together. And in two seasons since the Nets made this pursuit, that is where they have exited, too.
There is no doubt that the assembling of three of the top players in the game has made them what they were: a favorite on paper. But not only were the Nets done in by injuries, but by their own process. LaMarcus Aldridge unfortunately was forced into retirement. DeAndre Jordan was an afterthought. The chase to the finish line right now was understandable and the Nets can go into the summer convinced, with good reason, that if they were at full strength, they were the best team in the NBA.
But what next? The building blocks that got them to this point have been traded away. The picks that Marks has been so good at finding and former coach Kenny Atkinson was so good at developing are now the property of other franchises, either traded outright or subject to pick swaps. More pressing are the decisions to come on contract extensions, which will come at the price that you might have bought the franchise for a couple of decades ago. And if you don’t commit to this group, then do they commit to Brooklyn beyond next season? Does that make all of this ride on one season, next season?
"I mean, I think every guy’s fueled by…they bring their own juice every day," Durant said. "I mean of course losses will be tough, but we got a few more months for next season, then a whole year to the next playoffs. So I mean we’re gonna be thinking about this the next few weeks.
"But as we go on to the next season and as we start to get into the thick of the next season we got to turn the page and guys got to continue to keep getting better individually. I know continuity is a huge thing in our league, because GMs, owners, they move players all the time; but for us, we try to give each other a summer, keep grinding and come back next year.
Was it all worth it? Maybe we just don’t know yet.