As they entered the postseason, and then engaged the Celtics and Bucks, the Nets openly courted adversity. They said it would build character, and make them tougher and more unified, as if they were trying to speak it into existence.
The injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving? The lack of Big 3 time together on the floor? The challenges presented by opponents who had been together longer?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
That’s what the Nets packaged and sold to the masses as they tried to navigate Harden’s hamstring, Irving’s ankle and the unit’s lack of big-game repetition. And guess what? By failing to close out the Bucks in Game 6 in Milwaukee, the Nets didn’t just embrace adversity, they sent it an engraved invitation to Saturday night’s Game 7 at Barclays Center.
“This is the deck we have,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.
Yes, you can argue that there’s plenty of pressure on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (and coach Mike Budenholzer) to finally break through and win the East. The Greek Freak, two-time MVP, has been in the league for eight years. That should be enough time for a great player to reach the Finals, especially after his team face-planted in last year’s conference semis, in which the Heat burst the Bucks’ bubble.
But the Nets need to win this game even more. Kevin Durant needs it as he climbs the ladder of all-time greats, jumping from the unofficial top 20 into the unofficial top 10, and who knows from there? Harden needs it as he tries to win his first championship ring. Even though he will watch in street clothes, Irving needs it as he tries to return in the next playoff round and ultimately achieve what he has wanted to achieve since he was a ballhandling prodigy in New Jersey — winning a title for his home team in front of family and friends.
So the Nets will feel immense pressure Saturday night. The great ones use that pressure as rocket fuel, the way Durant did in Game 5. After a predictable team-wide letdown in Game 6, Durant said he generally doesn’t try to duplicate huge nights.
Game 7 would be a perfect time to, you know, duplicate that huge night.
“I’m not trying to be a hero out there. I know I can’t win a ballgame by myself,” Durant said after Milwaukee evened the series.
Depending on Harden’s mobility, or lack thereof, Durant might have no choice but to go solo to lead the Nets to the conference finals.
“I’ve got to keep the ball in my hands a little bit more,” he said, while addressing the need to be aggressive offensively and, in his words, to “go downhill” on drives to the goal.
Of course, the Nets will have their excuses to lean on in the event they are eliminated by the Bucks. Irving’s ankle sprain was a dramatic game-changer in this series, and though Harden looked physically better in Game 6 than he did in Game 5, he still wasn’t half the force he was with two healthy legs.
“It’s not even about rust,” Harden said. “It’s about being able to move. … I’m out there to do whatever it takes to win. I’ve got to be better on both sides of the ball, which I will be for Game 7.”
But those excuses don’t supersede the two primary reasons why the Nets should still win this series:
- They are suiting up the best player in the sport.
- They are playing at home, in front of an improving fan base.
Developing a home-court advantage is a little like developing a contending team — you have to first establish a functioning culture. Though the Barclays crowd has taken some hits over a perceived lack of ferocity, Nets fans proved Tuesday night they are capable of pushing a wounded team — elevated by a red-hot superstar — across the finish line. Fan passion should not be the problem in Game 7.
And then there’s Durant, who was outplayed by Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in Game 6. It would be surprising if Durant didn’t bring his A-game. He might not match what he did in Game 5, but his performance should be good enough for the W.
The Nets must slow the Bucks in transition, and they could sure use a few more 3s from Joe Harris, whom Harden regularly pumps up by telling him that he’s the best shooter in the world. But when everything is measured from head to toe, the final result of what should be a tight, compelling duel seems clear.
Even as the betting favorite to win it all, the Nets have legitimate excuses to fail — just none that rise to the level of costing them a Game 7 at home with Kevin Durant on their side.