The ball was where the Nets wanted it to be, needed it to be, safely tucked in Kevin Durant’s hands, seconds melting away in Game 7, seconds bleeding away in the season. Durant had already scored 48 points. He’d played every second, again, for the second time in three games.
He’d already nearly blown the roof off Barclays Center, draining a turnaround 22-footer that tied the game one second from the end of regulation, a shot that was maybe three millimeters away from being a game-winner, the tip of his toes grazing the 3-point line.
Now it was Bucks 113, Nets 111, time dropping off the clock in overtime. The Bucks’ Khris Middleton missed a shot and the Nets decided against a time-out. What would’ve been the point? The ball was already where it needed to be, where it had to be. Durant shook himself free for a fraction of a second, made the same move he’d made earlier.
Of course it looked good, because Durant’s shots always look good.
It wasn’t good, and in the same moment, that airball removed all the air, all the oxygen, from the 16,287 people who’d believed all night they were watching a springboard, to the Eastern finals and beyond. There would be no Eastern finals. There would be no beyond. It ended here. It ended 115-111, Bucks.
“It hurts,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “It hurts bad. I hurt for them more than anything.”
Even in their hour of supreme disappointment, the players on the floor had been tough, and resilient, and clutch. You can be all of that and still fail, and the Nets did. Durant was Durant. James Harden, revealing at last that he’d been playing on a Grade 2 right hamstring strain, somehow played 53 minutes on one good leg, scored 22 points and handed out nine assists.
There was even Bruce Brown, quintessential role player, 6-for-8 from the field across 52 minutes, who seemed to make every play down the stretch: defense, rebounding, right-place, right-time stuff. There were so many players who would’ve earned epic laurels and kudos had things gone differently.
But things didn’t go differently.
“I feel like [crap],” Harden admitted.
“Every team went through adversity this year,” Durant said, eschewing an opportunity to blame the Nets’ predicament on the crowded trainer’s room.
“I still thought we would win it,” Nash said.
Everyone did. Their lead was 101-96 when Harden made a miracle 3-point bank shot with four minutes to go; the Bucks came back. The Nets led 111-109 when Brown made a follow-up 22 seconds into OT, and the Bucks went dry for the first 3:48 of the extra period; the Bucks came back. After spending most of the season expanding the borders of what offense could be, the Nets went the final 4 minutes and 38 seconds without a single point.
“We had good looks,” Durant said. “We just didn’t make them.”
Yes, it is possible — likely, even — that this all might have ended differently if Harden’s hammy hadn’t started barking at him 43 seconds into this series, if Kyrie Irving’s ankle hadn’t bent in half in Game 3. But there will be no asterisk attached to this.
All along, we knew the one thing that could most easily derail the Nets from their breezy pathway to Borough Hall and a championship parade was health. There were only eight games in which Durant, Harden and Irving played together in the regular season. The Nets set all-time records for load management and minutes restrictions and giving guys extra time off, hoping to preserve knees, ankles and hamstrings for the spring.
It didn’t matter. They got hurt anyway. It happens. Injuries have littered the NBA playoffs. The Nets’ mission when they traded most of their future for Harden early in the season was a simple one: title or bust. It was a deal with the basketball devil; Saturday night they bowed their head because they knew that they’d been beat.
“So many emotions,” Harden said, shaking his head.
Durant, who in Games 5 and 7 averaged 50.5 minutes and 48.5 points, was unimpressed by what he’d done.
“Not at all,” he said pointedly. “Who cares.”
The Nets may have won some admirers during this seven-game opus, but they lost the series. They lost a golden chance to win a title. Maybe they can run it back next year, keep everyone healthy, trace a path to Borough Hall.
“This thing,” Joe Harris said, “is far from over for us.”
Maybe that’s true. Still, it was hard not to recall an old New Jersey Americans fan named Bill Parcells standing outside the Jets’ locker room after the 1999 AFC Championship Game, totally gassed as he said: “You realize just how much work you have to go through just to get right back to where we are right now. Just to get right back to where we’re standing.”
And had, years earlier, come up with the mantra that best defines how these 2020-21 Nets will ultimately, and regrettably, be remembered: “No medals for trying.”