In the end, it was a broken play that might have broken the Nets. Mike Scott was supposed to be a decoy. That’s what he called himself. Instead he was the hero. That’s what the Sixers would call him; the Nets would no doubt call him something else.
Joel Embiid “saw me in the corner,” Scott said about hitting the Game 4 winner that put the Sixers in a commanding 3-1 position in the first-round series. “Cashed out.”
Cashed out. It got some snickers in the room and more than a few online. That is a tough way for Brooklyn to lose. The Nets were up seven points with just over five minutes to go. They were that close to being even with the Sixers—and now they’re so far away.
“You see two teams out there hungry, trying to compete,” D’Angelo Russell said after Saturday’s game. “They sure as hell don’t want to lose to the Brooklyn Nets.”
No, they sure as hell do not. The Nets sure as hell don’t want to lose to the Sixers, either, but Tuesday’s Game 5 could prove fateful—and fatal. Losing the first two home playoff games they’ve had in years—in front of capacity Barclays Center crowds that had to be among the loudest and most engaged the building has ever seen—was not the outcome they wanted. It has been an impossibly fun series for the rest of us, and probably an excruciating one for the Nets. As Brett Brown put it, “a lot of oxygen” gets sucked out of a series when a team goes up 3-1. And yet, despite finding themselves in a situation that Caris LeVert understandably called “disappointing” and “frustrating,” it’s hard not to think about how much life these Nets have breathed into Brooklyn basketball.
Just last season, the Nets were a sub-.500 team—all but invisible leaguewide and in their own city—in the midst of a difficult, open-ended rebuild. Even franchise loyalists could only hope the front office plan would eventually yield results. It was all theoretical. And then, suddenly, part of the payoff was real. In that way, the Nets rebuild was similar to (but certainly not the same as) the Sixers’ rebuild. Like Philly, Brooklyn returned to the playoffs faster than some anticipated thanks to some nifty maneuvering. Like Philly, Brooklyn’s first postseason in a while might come to a more agonizing end than the Nets want. And just like Philly, that pain portends something greater.
Even under the best circumstances, pack interviews tend to be pretty annoying for everyone involved. You have a bunch of reporters jockeying for position and an interview subject who’s trying to answer questions while surrounded. The bigger the event, the more people involved, the tighter the quarters. No one likes a media scrum. Not the media. Not players. Not coaches. Not usually.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Kenny Atkinson said, “and I’m proud of it. We’re proud of it, I should say. The fact that I’m here with you guys in this kind of scrum, playoff scrum, media scrum, it’s just I didn’t expect it to come this soon.”
Bless his heart, he was almost beaming. Usually during these group interviews you have a team PR handler standing off to the side staring at a watch, eager to call time and rescue the subject after an allotted period has been exhausted. Not so with the Nets and their head coach. Atkinson was more than happy to chat at length last week at the team’s practice facility in Brooklyn a couple of days before Game 3 of their series with the Sixers. Before now, the franchise had missed three straight postseasons, and nine of its current players had never been to the playoffs. The same was true of Atkinson in his capacity as a head coach. There is a first time for everything, and this is theirs. Atkinson seemed like he wanted to soak it all in and enjoy the proceedings, scrum included.
But think of it this way: To be annoyed by the crush of postseason media, you first have to make the postseason. That’s something not a lot of people thought Brooklyn would pull off so quickly—the Nets included. Atkinson said he’d told general manager Sean Marks that he was “expecting to go through this in Year 6, Year 5.”
“It’s hard to believe, quite honestly,” Atkinson said about the Nets’ accelerated timeline. “I keep saying we’re a little ahead of schedule, and we’re proud of that.”
This is Atkinson’s third season as head coach. The Nets won just 20 games that first year and only 28 a year ago. This season wasn’t supposed to be much better. Vegas installed its over/under win total at 32.5. FiveThirtyEight predicted they’d win 36 games and gave them a 34 percent shot to make the playoffs. By any measure, the Nets overachieved. They went 42-40—their first winning record in five seasons—and earned the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference. During those down years, the Nets weren’t just bad, they were something far worse, especially considering the city they play in: irrelevant. That has lately changed. As my Ringer teammate Chris Almeida wrote, the Nets and their fans are having a moment.
“I feel it,” Atkinson said. “I feel the chatter. I feel the talk. That’s really cool about being here. To get this city talking about us, it’s hard. There’s so much action and so much between the culture and the sports teams. That we’re on the radar right now is huge.”
It didn’t hurt that the Nets got (mostly) healthy at the right time and played some of their best basketball late in the season. Caris LeVert returned from a scary early-season foot injury, and Spencer Dinwiddie recovered from a thumb injury that required surgery. (They did, however, lose Allen Crabbe to late-season knee surgery.) Meanwhile, D’Angelo Russell had his best season as a pro, made his first All-Star Game, and helped carry the Nets while they were working back to full strength. After the All-Star break, the Nets got much-needed wins over the Hornets, Spurs, Pistons, Kings, and Celtics, and they closed out the regular season with three straight victories against the Bucks, Pacers, and Heat. Atkinson said the Nets felt like “we’ve been playing playoff games” for the last quarter or so of the regular season, and that the pressure helped the maturation process.
Maybe late-season performance is a myth when it comes to predicting postseason success, but the Nets felt pretty good about their effort. Russell called it a “great atmosphere” and “really different” from how it felt only a year ago, and Jarrett Allen said people on the street “wave and say, ‘I can’t wait to see you.’” Which I guess means they did not wave before and/or were not previously eager to see them.
“We have a lot of pride, just to see how far the organization has come here over the last three years since Sean and Kenny have come in,” Joe Harris said after practice in Brooklyn one day last week. “We’ve gotten to the point where we definitely can feel proud about bringing playoff basketball back to Brooklyn.”
It’s been an entertaining but bumpy ride. The Nets shocked the Sixers in Game 1 and sent Philadelphians into a predictable panic—then lost the next three matchups. The Nets surrendered 51 points in an ugly and fateful third quarter in Game 2, then underperformed in Game 3 at home even though Joel Embiid did not play. In Game 4, Jared Dudley famously goaded Ben Simmons, became an instant meme, took on all the Sixers, and then got ejected along with Jimmy Butler.
It's a full blown fight at Barclays Center.— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 20, 2019
Tensions have reached peak. pic.twitter.com/U9RAd3987U
The Dudley-vs.-Simmons feud has been wildly entertaining. Villain vs. villain always is. Dudley clowned the Sixers after Game 1, then went after Simmons before Game 3. Nets fans took up the cause. Someone put up a Ben Simmons missing poster outside Barclays Center when the series moved to Brooklyn. And as I was headed to my seat inside the arena last Thursday, a fan near the press section shouted, “Ben Simmons you a bitch.” The Sixers returned fire. Embiid called Dudley “a nobody” after Game 4, and Sixers Twitter debated whether Dudley looks like “a wet thumb in a headband” or “a potato left out in the rain.” The NBA is incredible sometimes.
It is also unforgiving at all times. The Nets are learning as they go here, and that education has come with some hard-knock lessons. As Dudley ever-so-graciously stipulated after his ejection and his team’s Game 4 loss, the Sixers are “the 3-seed for a reason.” These Sixers have played in precisely two more playoff series than these Nets, and yet when Atkinson calls his guys “inexperienced” by comparison it doesn’t sound ridiculous.
“It’s not like we’re happy to be here,” Atkinson said before Game 3. “We can compete with these guys and we can get them if we play the way we’ve been playing all year.”
The old adage about styles making fights has been particularly interesting in this series. Brooklyn has tried to play fast and shoot a lot of 3s. Philly has looked to exploit its size advantage and bully the Nets down low. But for all their differences in personnel and approach, there are obvious similarities between the two organizations. A year ago, the Sixers were arriving in the playoffs ahead of schedule, after a dark period in their franchise history. There was a sense of accomplishment. There were also questions about what would come next and how they could continue the forward momentum. Rebooting the franchise and making the playoffs again is great, but making a postseason run and building something sustainable presents another set of challenges. Atkinson called the postseason a great experience for his players but admitted they’re all a little “naive” as they try to figure out what, exactly, they’re capable of accomplishing—not just right now, but for the foreseeable future.
“Sometimes,” Atkinson said, sounding hopeful, “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Right?”
Nets fans might take umbrage with that. What the organization did not know in the past—that trading a host of valuable assets for aging veterans in the basketball equivalent of a desperate get-rich-quick scheme—ended up hurting the team quite a bit. If you Google “Nets trade Celtics,” the first result is a Washington Post headline that asks a simple, biting question: “Worst NBA trade ever?”
In 2013, then general manager Billy King sent five players and four first-round draft picks to the Celtics in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and D.J. White. There’s a post-trade picture of Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge with a giant, crescent grin on his face; I don’t think it was because the Celtics acquired Kris Humphries. It took a while for the Nets to dig out from under that decision. They had no first-round pick in 2016, and no picks at all in 2014. When Marks took over the front office in February 2016, the Nets were a hollowed-out husk that struggled to win 21 games that season. In addition to the draft-pick deficit, there were precious few good players on the roster. Marks inherited a team headlined by Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Among others, Marks reportedly beat out Bryan Colangelo for the gig, but a lot of people around the league wondered at the time why he’d want to leave the safety and success he’d enjoyed in San Antonio to take on an awful lot of heavy lifting in Brooklyn. But as Marks told Kevin O’Connor in December 2017, “You never know how different teams are evolving and what’s going to happen. … A lot of it is knowing the temperature of the NBA landscape, making sure that you have flexibility.”
Marks and the Nets have done a good job of finding value where other teams didn’t see any. They sent Thad Young to the Pacers for a second-round pick and LeVert, who was doing well this season before his injury and has become a key component in their plans. The same is true of Dinwiddie, whom the Nets signed to a fat new contract extension in December after grabbing him off the NBA discard pile. And they were quick to raise their hand up when the Lakers looked around for a team to take a chance on D’Angelo Russell. To make it happen, the Nets choked down Timofey Mozgov’s contract and gave up the rights to Kyle Kuzma, but with Russell’s breakout All-Star season, you won’t hear anyone in Brooklyn complaining.
“Sean Marks has done a great job, and Kenny has done a great job with the players that Sean has provided,” Brett Brown said. “Their rebuild is different. They’re both incredibly difficult because our rebuild, we had to get some ping-pong balls right. Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. Some we did, some we didn’t. His version you had to go pay some people and hopefully they came good, or take a chance on D’Angelo Russell and that came good. That seems to be a hell of a smart decision.”
With LeVert, Dinwiddie, and Russell, the Nets have three killer guards who have given opposing teams fits all season. It also means playing a certain style. As Atkinson said, they’re “not going to turn into the Pistons Bad Boys.” That momentarily changed in Game 4 when Dudley and the Sixers got into a silly shoving match, but that brief out-of-character exchange didn’t alter the Nets’ identity.
“We’re not the Flyers of the ’80s,” Atkinson said. “We understand who we are.” They’re a team that likes to run and operate on the perimeter. As of Monday, the Nets were tied for first in pace and had attempted the second-most 3s. The Nets’ fondness for finesse over physicality has been an issue at times against the Sixers, though. Not only has Philly outrebounded them in the series and scored more points in the paint, but Allen’s face absorbed a pretty big blow from Embiid’s elbow in Game 2. That’s still something of a sore subject around the Nets, and it probably had something to do with the heightened tension in Game 4. Late last week, LeVert and Russell defended Allen after practice in Brooklyn and said they were none too happy with Embiid’s tactics. And Dinwiddie theorized that, had the roles been reversed, Allen would have been ejected for doing something similar. It was a hot topic that afternoon.
“What does that prove?” Dinwiddie replied when asked whether the Nets would be more physical with the Sixers. “We prove we’re quote-unquote tough guys? What does that mean? It doesn’t mean nothing.”
That’s not entirely true. It meant enough to Marks that he pulled a move worthy of a Greek basketball owner and reportedly barged into the referees’ locker room after Saturday’s game to complain that Embiid’s Flagrant 1 calls in the series should have been Flagrant 2s. For his troubles, Marks was fined $25,000 and suspended one game.
Of all the Nets, Allen has been the most chill about their dust-ups with the Sixers. He’s a pretty soft-spoken guy and just sort of shrugged it off. He said he didn’t think there was any “malice” to Embiid’s elbow and dismissed it as little more than “an aggressive play.” He’s a sweetheart of a kid, and he fits nicely on the Nets’ timeline. Allen just turned 21 on Sunday. The Nets nabbed him with the 22nd pick of the 2017 draft. Along with the three young guards (Russell is 23, LeVert is 24, Dinwiddie is 26), that’s a nice core to build around—one that’s already paying dividends. As Spotrac pointed out, the Nets’ starting five cost just $37 million this season. By comparison, the Sixers’ starting five cost almost $80 million. The Nets also control all their future first-round picks again, as well as an additional first-rounder courtesy of the Denver Nuggets in the upcoming 2019 draft. And they should have around $50 million in cap space to court potential free agents this coming offseason.
“I know all of our guys are excited to be part of this transition process,” Dinwiddie said. “We really want to produce for [Brooklyn]. It’s been a long journey.”
Now comes the hard part. As the Sixers learned last offseason, having significant cap space doesn’t mean superstar free agents will line up to have you cut them a giant check. And the Nets haven’t always been prudent with how they’ve allocated funds. That was true in the King era, and under Marks, the Nets made some wild overtures to restricted free agents, including offering $106 million to Otto Porter Jr., $75 million to Allen Crabbe, $50 million to Tyler Johnson, and $37 million to Donatas Motiejunas. The Nets’ small p process has, as Atkinson said, “been an education” for all of them—Marks included. On the whole, though, Brooklyn is in far better shape than it was just three years ago. There’s been a lot of talk about the Knicks and Clippers going star hunting this offseason, but with the maneuvers they’ve made, the Nets are as well positioned as anyone.
“Huge, just huge growth,” Atkinson said about the franchise’s rapid development. Before the second heartbreaking home loss to the Sixers, the head coach said his guys were “seeing things we haven’t seen” in the postseason and figured “maybe there’s a series down the road or next year where this is going to help us.” They aren’t at the end of that road just yet, but it says something about the Nets that they’ve come this far, and that for the first time in a long time they can see a real path for their future.