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No consolation for built-to-win Nets

Brooklyn starting over in 2021-22 after second-round exit

June 22, 2021 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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There is no substitute for victory.

The Brooklyn Nets and their fan base are in full agreement on the famed quote by General Douglas MacArthur, especially in the wake of Saturday night’s devastating 115-111 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Downtown’s
Barclays Center in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Not only were these Nets, driven by the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, supposed to win the first NBA title in franchise history, they also appeared destined to bring our borough its first major pro sports championship since 1955.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

But none of it happened.

When Kevin Durant’s bid for a second consecutive game-saving jumper from the top of the key found nothing but air, the Nets were suddenly left on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference Finals.

That’s something no one could have predicted when Brooklyn buried Milwaukee in Games 1 and 2 and Durant hit the game-winning shot to cap his epic 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist performance in Game 5.

But the Bucks, buoyed by superstar center Giannis Antetokounmpo, went home and took care of business in Game 6 before finding a way to send 16,287 Brooklynites spilling out on to Atlantic and Flatbush with a sick, empty feeling Saturday.

“It hurts. It should hurt, but life moves on,” admitted Nets general manager Sean Marks, who built this thing from the ground up only to see it fail when it mattered most.

After Durant forced OT in Game 7 with a shot that should have lived in Brooklyn lore for ages to come, the Nets managed one measly basket during the five-minute extra session.

Despite the ineptitude, Brooklyn held a 111-109 lead with under a minute-and-a-half remaining.

Antetokounmpo made sure the score would not remain that way.

The former two-time NBA Most Valuable Player dropped a four-footer in the lane with 1:12 to play that knotted the contest, and Khris Middleton’s 13-footer put the Bucks ahead to stay.

Durant, who played an heroic series, tried in vain to force a second OT, but his 24-footer missed everything and bounded out of play with 0.3 on the clock.

Playing through pain throughout the series, James Harden couldn’t lift the Nets over the Bucks at Downtown’s Barclays Center Saturday. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II

Suddenly, a season full of expectations turned into a gluttony of what ifs.

What if Irving’s sprained ankle hadn’t forced him out of the series in Game 4?

What if Harden hadn’t been playing on only one healthy leg due to a re-occurence of a hamstring strain that cost him the better part of five weeks prior to the playoffs?

What if Joe Harris, arguably the best 3-point shooter in the sport, hadn’t gone 8-for-44 from long range over the final six games of the series?

What if LaMarcus Aldridge, acquired in April to help bolster the most expensive roster in the league, hadn’t been forced to retire just 15 days later due to an irregular heartbeat?

What if Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets’ top star at the bubble site last summer, hadn’t suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December that cost him the remainder of the campaign?

The scenarios are endless. But the Nets’ season is over.

“Nobody is feeling sorry for the Nets, and we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s pro sports,” Marks intimated during his end-of-year presser.

“The good thing for us is we’re going to be busy at the combine, we’re going to be busy with the draft process, and we’re going to manage the off-boarding of this team and of this season. That’s the difficult part of this all. We’ve just talked to the players. That’s the initial thought for us right now.”

While Marks handles the business end of running this group back for another shot in 2021-22, including finding a way to keep the Big Three together for the next several years, the players are still licking their wounds.

“So many emotions. Just me personally, like, it’s frustrating for myself just being durable and being myself for the last so many postseasons. Just dealing with this particular hamstring, it’s just, it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated,” ceded Harden.

“We want to win. We want to win every game we play,” added Durant. “We want to win a championship every year just like every team. So the last game of the season we lose, but the beauty of our profession is we get up and keep going. … So we get ready for next year.”

Inspiring words, albeit bittersweet, for a team and fan base that felt it was finally their year.

The Nets now get to watch as the Bucks meet the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals.

They’ll also have to take a good look at themselves and figure out if they have what it takes to make their postseason aspirations come true a year from now.

Brooklyn’s 2020-21 campaign featured the highest winning percentage (.667) in team history and the best offensive rating ever posted by any NBA team.

Kevin Durant and the Nets now have to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II

What it didn’t feature was the thing the Nets and their fans wanted most: a parade down Flatbush Avenue for the world champions of professional basketball.

“I’m extremely excited about where this could go,” Marks said Monday.

That’s all that was left to say after this season didn’t go where it was supposed to.

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