As the Nets headed toward the fourth quarter against a rampaging Celtics team that had successfully beaten back every Brooklyn attempt to edge out in front of them, Steve Nash played a gambit: Blake Griffin. Nash was betting that Griffin’s passing and general offensive savvy would catalyze a Nets run, a run strong enough to overcome the pain Boston would surely inflict on Brooklyn for daring to put such a creaky defender on the floor in a critical situation. It didn’t really work, even though Griffin hit two threes and pushed his body to the limit diving for loose balls and doing his level best to stick with the Celtics’ perimeter attackers. As everyone in the building knew they would, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took turns summoning up Griffin’s man defense on every single possession and going at him.
That Nash was backed into the sort of corner that required him to try Griffin in a straightforwardly poisonous matchup says everything you need to know about how overmatched the Nets are. To Griffin’s credit, he put everything he had into his eight minutes, locking up Brown and Tatum a few times, keeping the ball moving, and pushing to a point of clear physical exhaustion. Winning the game for the Nets was too big a lift, but Nash had to try to force some dynamism into his team, and Griffin was one of the last few cards he had left to play.
The Celtics, of course, won, pushing Brooklyn to the brink of elimination. The first game of this series was incredible theater, one that promised a highly competitive matchup between the collective excellence of the Celtics and the individual brilliance of the Nets’ two stars. Instead, Irving and Durant haven’t really shown up since that first game in Boston, and a series that had the potential to be one of the best first-rounders in recent memory is heading towards a dismal conclusion. The noble shortcoming of the Blake Griffin strategy will go down as the one of the final experiments in a season of failed ones.
Griffin was an imperfect solution to a thorny problem. To say the Nets offense is reliant on Irving and Durant getting theirs is underselling it, since the Nets offense is Irving and Durant getting theirs. There is no real Plan B, and aside from Bruce Brown, Brooklyn doesn’t have any other players who bring any juice to the team. Seth Curry can hit shots, but he doesn’t create them. Ditto for Patty Mills. Goran Dragic is a nice change of pace off the bench, but he’s not a two-way player. Now, these individual deficiencies aren’t exactly problematic for the Nets when they’re working as intended, as the supporting cast is built to support Irving and Durant as they take turns doing stuff with the rock. Problem is, Boston’s defense has easily contained the two stars, leaving them to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find something different, something that can at least force Boston to make choices or rotate or do anything besides manage futile one-on-one attempts then sprint the other way for transition buckets.
Boston scored 25 fast break points and forced 21 turnovers on Saturday, with Durant giving up nearly as many turnovers (five) as he produced buckets (six). His tally for the series is roughly even. For the first time since maybe Oklahoma City’s collapse in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, Durant looks completely overwhelmed. The Celtics are focusing the bulk of their defensive energy towards containing him, but it’s still stunning to see him so thoroughly shut down. “I probably should have taken more shots, but I just tried to play the game the right way without being too aggressive and forcing turnovers,” Durant said afterwards. Durant has played all but 15 minutes of this series, though he denied that fatigue was a real issue.
He’s probably right, in a game-by-game sense, but it’s worth pointing out here how hard the Nets’ road to even make it into the playoffs was. Durant wasn’t healthy all year; their cadre of old guys mostly gave them nothing; Kyrie Irving is still not vaccinated; Joe Harris hasn’t played since November; James Harden was this team’s sole offensive engine for months, and now he’s gone; his replacement will suit up for probably one game this season. It has been a year of pain for Brooklyn, but even then, the theoretical version of this team is so tantalizingly good that they correctly scared the shit of the Eastern Conference. The thinking was always that it would not take much for everything to finally click and the team to reach their obviously tremendous potential. But now, it’s clear that won’t happen this year. The Celtics are too feisty and the Nets are too over-leveraged. This forthcoming series loss isn’t so much a collapse as a final concession that this whole project was too unwieldy to get wrangled into shape.
The process I’m describing here, the one the Nets never followed through on, is the process of becoming a basketball team. Talent is a necessary precursor to postseason success, but it needs a catalyst. The contrast to the Celtics puts it into rather sharp relief. Boston flies around and works as a five-man unit. The Nets are still actively figuring themselves out. A different version of this team nearly made the Finals last year, but this year simply demanded too much of them, and they never cohered.
Just look how they describe themselves. “I’m just thinking too much, to be honest—this whole series, to be honest—this total series of how to approach the game,” Durant said. “We’re not being forceful in our actions. We’re second-guessing ourselves a little bit. Throwing a lot of passes that are second thoughts. They’re too good a team for us to do that,” Nash said. Irving said the Nets were “a new team” who “haven’t had time” to gel. “We just haven’t been a cohesive unit,” Griffin said.
They know they’re not a real team, and even if they steal a game, they know they’re cooked.