There were versions of the Nets that might’ve been able to do better than this.
The one that entered preseason—featuring a healthy Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden flanked by marksmen Joe Harris and Patty Mills, with a host of mix-and-match lineup options for Steve Nash to deploy—might’ve had the firepower to trade haymakers with these Celtics. The one that played the first 30 or so games—racking up the East’s best record and third-best net rating in mid-December, despite Harden starting slow and Irving not starting at all—might’ve been able to overwhelm the C’s on the strength of Durant playing arguably the best ball of his life. The one that exited the trade deadline—with KD, a not-yet-full-time Kyrie, and Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-11 transition-offense generator who could address Brooklyn’s biggest needs—might’ve been better equipped to tangle with Boston’s size, scoring, and steel.
None of those versions made it to the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs, though, for a million different reasons, and so the Nets didn’t do better; they didn’t do well at all, in fact. They went out sad, with consecutive losses on their home court, capped by a 116-112 defeat in Monday’s Game 4. They end the season holding four straight L’s delivered by a Celtics team that straight up didn’t even sweat them.
The preseason favorites to win the NBA championship instead exit as the only one of the 16 playoff participants without a win—an inauspicious start to what promises to be a downright fascinating offseason. As it turned out, there was no monster under the bed, no terror hiding in the play-in tournament; in the end, the “Team the Favorites Don’t Want to Play” never existed. The 2021-22 Nets died as they lived: much better and more compelling in theory than they ever managed to be in reality.
“Over the course of the season, there were just too many, too many things that held us back for moments and pockets,” Nash told reporters after Monday’s season-ending loss.
Elimination begets autopsy. Now that the scalpels are out, there’ll be plenty of diagnoses for why this Nets season unfolded so disappointingly. Durant ran through a bunch of them after the game, highlighting the myriad injuries, illnesses, midstream shake-ups, and assorted other issues—including Irving being “in and out [of] the lineup” until late March due to his decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine—that made it nearly impossible for Brooklyn to establish much continuity.
But while the context surrounding that lack of cohesion might be complicated, it all resolved to a simple explanation, one tendered by veteran guard Goran Dragic after Boston put the finishing touches on the first losing sweep of Durant’s and Irving’s careers: “We were just not good enough. That’s it.” Brooklyn shot more accurately from the field and got to the foul line more in the series, but beyond that, Boston controlled the run of play.
The C’s hammered the smaller Nets in the paint and dominated the offensive glass, rebounding nearly 34 percent of their misses en route to 14.8 second-chance points per game. They used their size and physicality on the other end, too, forcing turnovers at a rate that would’ve ranked third in the NBA during the regular season and running like hell off of them against what was one of the league’s least attentive and most permissive open-court defenses; Boston scored just under 1.58 points per transition play in the series, miles ahead of what the NBA’s best fast-breaking attacks managed during the regular season.
Whether in transition or the half court, the Nets never found an answer for Jayson Tatum, who went toe to toe with Durant and never blinked. The three-time All-Star averaged a series-high 29.5 points and 7.3 assists on 46/42/87 shooting splits. As the series progressed, he sought out and routinely punished Brooklyn’s smaller defenders on switches, using his height advantage and high release to shoot over the likes of Irving, Dragic, Bruce Brown, and Seth Curry like they were barely there:
On the other end, while the Celtics took great pains to make guarding Durant a family affair—and inflicted their fair share of pain in the process—it was Tatum who shouldered the bulk of the responsibility for checking KD, holding him to just just 3-for-18 shooting with 12 turnovers in more than 30 minutes of head-to-head play, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data. Durant saved his best for last, shaking loose for a game-high 39 (albeit on 31 shots) with nine assists and seven rebounds in Game 4 while resting for just 81 seconds as he raged against the dying of the light. But with Boston making him work for every catch and bucket, the Nets needed more from elsewhere. Too often, they didn’t get it.
Irving was sensational in Game 1, scoring 39 points in 42 minutes, answering every jeer and curse from the TD Garden crowd with a “fuck you” shot—and, sometimes, an actual “fuck you”—to push Brooklyn to the brink of stealing home-court advantage before the hosts snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a bit of late-game magic. Kyrie was comparatively quiet after that, though, totaling just 46 points on 37.2 percent shooting over the final three games of the series, as wave after wave of Boston defenders kept crashing down on him, bodying him up on drives and making sure that every pull-up came with a hand (or two) in his face:
Other Nets did their level best to support the superstars—Dragic chipped in 18 off the bench in Game 2, Bruce Brown added 26 in Game 3, Curry scored 23 with five 3s in Game 4—but Boston’s ability to blanket Durant and Irving more effectively than any other team in the league rendered it all moot. The assumption baked into the construction of the Nets’ roster was that they’d have the best player in any playoff series, and likely the two most dangerous scorers. Over the course of these four games, though, the other guys did.
Tatum outdueled Durant. Jaylen Brown (22.5 points on 49.3 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.5 steals per game) was a steadier force than Irving. Marcus Smart (28 assists against 10 turnovers) provided a third reliable table-setter, which Brooklyn lacked. The C’s poked and prodded the Nets’ switch-heavy coverages until they found the matchups they wanted and exploited them. Boston averaged just under 120 points per 100 possessions in the final three games of the series—a level of offensive efficiency that would’ve led the league during the regular season, and that the Nets just couldn’t match against the Celtics’ elite defense, even with KD and Kyrie at their disposal.
Kevin Durant on the Celtics: "They're just a better team... This is the best defense in the league."— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) April 26, 2022
That’s a problem, because the overarching plan in Brooklyn ever since KD and Kyrie joined up has been to produce an indefensible offense that would win games by overwhelming the opposition. It’s worked in fits and starts: a scorching offensive rating of 129.1 points per 100 possessions in the vanishingly brief KD-Kyrie-Harden era, a nearly as gnarly 124.8 points-per-100 in KD-Kyrie minutes this season. But it has never once come together for any meaningful stretch of time. Some of that owes to all the disruptions: the Harden pursuit, the new Big Three combining to miss 78 regular-season games in 2020-21, and Harden and Kyrie both going down in the Bucks series last season; Kyrie’s vaccination saga, KD’s MCL sprain, Joe Harris playing just 14 games, and Simmons playing zero games this season.
Some of it, though, might be because there never really seemed to be much of a plan beyond “get some superstars, and let them figure it out.” The nettlesome part of that: Once you’ve got the superstars, you’ve got to put the right sort of support structure around them—a rotation replete with role players that accentuate the stars’ strengths and mitigate their flaws. Brooklyn never could quite seem to do that this season, as evidenced by Nash cycling through 43 different starting lineups—most in the NBA—and struggling nightly to find the right balance between offense and defense in a rotation that always seemed to feature too much of one thing (aging and limited centers, smaller shooters) and not enough of another (playable wings with the size to defend).
The Nets used to have a bunch of dudes who might have helped check some of those boxes: D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie. They were the players that Sean Marks brought in, and that Kenny Atkinson developed, to help basketball grow anew in Brooklyn after the disastrous 2013 trade that gave Boston the opportunity to, among other things, draft Brown and Tatum. Those rosters returned the Nets to respectability, but lacked megawatt star power. Ultimately, Brooklyn’s brass bet that enticing marquee talents like Durant and Irving would provide a better chance of winning than the Little Engine That Could teams that the Nets had to build without bona fide superstars. It wasn’t necessarily an easy decision, but it was an understandable gamble, the kind most executives would make 100 times out of 100. It’s also one that has, to this point, provided just one more series win than the plucky overachievers did … and the same number of first-round sweeps.
That wasn’t the plan, obviously, but it’s where the Nets find themselves—and now they’ll move forward with what will almost certainly have to be another new plan, because this summer will bring a host of questions in Brooklyn. Is Nash the right man for the job? (Durant still seems to have his back.) Will Irving, who holds a $36.5 million player option for next season, stick around for the long haul? (He says he doesn’t plan to go anywhere, but ask Boston fans about how that can turn out.) Come to think of it, should the Nets want to pony up a full-freight max for Kyrie after watching him average 34 games for three years in Brooklyn?
What can Brooklyn expect from Simmons, a former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, who just sat out an entire season with what’s been reported as mental health and recurring back issues? How should Marks and Co. handle the impending free agencies of Bruce Brown (who could draw plenty of interest on the unrestricted market) and Nic Claxton (who’s restricted and has value as a switch-defending rim protector)? And how can the Nets add the kind of size, youth, athleticism, and complementary talent that could ease the burden on Durant—who was fifth in the league in minutes per game in his 15th season, who averaged 44 minutes a night in Round 1, and who’s missed significant time due to injury in his past three seasons—to a team that’s already in the luxury tax for next season?
That’s an awful lot to figure out for a team with championship expectations. From the sound of things, though, all is well in hand.
“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together,” Irving told reporters after being swept. “Alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai] and [general manager] Sean [Marks], just our group of family members in our locker room, in our organization … I think we’ve just got to make some moves this offseason, really talk about it, and really be intentional about what we’re building.”
Three years into Brooklyn’s grand experiment, that really does seem to be the biggest question of all: What are Durant, Irving, and the Nets brain trust that imported and empowered them building? And, in an East that’s getting deeper, stronger, and more star-laden by the second, how likely is it that it’ll be built to last?