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Nets need to play better to avoid play-in

Three-game losing streak leaves Brooklyn desperate vs. Cavs

March 21, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The Nets are no longer looking at how they can jump up in the Eastern Conference standings.

Instead, Brooklyn is feeling the heat of dropping down into the play-in tournament.
The Miami Heat, that is.

Losers of three in a row and about to open a two-game set with Cleveland here at Downtown’s Barclays Center Tuesday night, the Nets (39-32) are only one game ahead of seventh-place Miami with 11 regular-season games remaining.

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Following a 3-2 road trip that had Brooklyn battling the East River rival New York Knicks (42-31) for the No. 5 seed in the East, consecutive losses to Sacramento and Denver on this four-game homestand have dropped the Nets into a perilous spot in the standings.

“I thought on our road trip, we had great energy, great juice, and somehow we’ve come home and lacked a little bit of energy and juice to start the game heck,” lamented Brooklyn head coach Jacque Vaughn.

“Happened versus (Sacramento) and happen(ed) again tonight,” he added. “So I think the starts of the game are important for us just for confidence-wise, just for setting the tone.”

The No. 7 to 10 seeds will be forced to compete in the play-in, with only two squads emerging into a first-round, best-of-7 playoff series.

Last year, the Nets had to settle for the seventh spot, beating the Cavaliers (45-28) in the play-in before bowing out in four straight games to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

Brooklyn was the only team to participate in a playoff series last season that didn’t win a single game.

Mikal Bridges keeps scoring, but the struggling Nets continue to drop in the Eastern Conference standings. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II

This year’s unit has an opportunity to go deeper into the postseason than the 2021-22 version did with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the fold.

The Nets went 7-7 in their first 14 games since the superstar tandem was traded out of Brooklyn last month, but this three-game slide has them teetering on the brink of falling out of the coveted slots reserved for teams gaining an automatic bid to a postseason series.

Brooklyn will play eight of its remaining 11 contests at Barclays, but Saturday night’s visit to Miami will be a key showdown in the hunt for a top six seed.

The Nets do hold the tiebreaker advantage over the Heat regardless of the outcome of their next contest.

But Brooklyn must pick up as many wins as possible to remain ahead of Miami, which has its arrow going up with victories in three of its last four games.

The Heat fell to the new-look Nets here on Feb. 15 as Mikal Bridges poured in a career-high 45 points.

Bridges led the Nets again with 23 points on Sunday, but Brooklyn never recovered from losing the first three quarters despite outscoring the Nuggets 31-17 over the final 12 minutes.

“There were some opportunities. We had good looks to shave the lead a little bit, just didn’t go in for us,” noted Vaughn.

The Nets are five games behind the Cavs heading into Tuesday’s game. They beat Cleveland 125-117 on Dec. 26, with Durant leading the way with 32 points.

The teams will meet again on Thursday before the Nets head out to Miami this weekend.

The Nets are still hoping to get injured swingman Ben Simmons back before the regular-season ends, according to head coach Jacque Vaughn. AP Photo by Rex Arbogast

NOTHING BUT NET: The Nets have played 13 games since the All-Star break without Ben Simmons, who has been hampered by knee and back issues. Vaughn still isn’t biting on the idea that Brooklyn may be without the enignmatic playmaker for the remainder of the campaign, as he intimated following the loss to Sacramento last Thursday night. “So we want him back to hoop, he wants to be back to hoop and that is definitely the goal,” Vaughn said of Simmons, who has been working out with his teammates at the HSS Training Center in Sunset Park. … After visiting Miami on Saturday, the Nets will be in Orlando Sunday before returning to Brooklyn for a four-game homestand.

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