The Nets aren’t just scheduled to play a Game 7 Saturday night at Barclays Center, 8:30 p.m., Bucks in the house, a ticket to the Eastern Conference finals at stake.
They will play the Game 7 of all their Game 7s.
It is a testament to just how rare the idea of a Game 7 is — all sports, really, but especially pro basketball — that the Nets have been in business since 1967, they have called Teaneck, N.J., home, and West Hempstead and Uniondale, Piscataway and East Rutherford and Newark, and now Brooklyn, and have played a total of six Game 7s in 54 seasons, and they’re 3-3 in them.
Sure. There have been some woeful stretches of basketball in there. But there also have been 29 playoff appearances, counting this one. There have been a few Game 5s when opening-round series were best-of-five, but there is little romance attached to Game 5, even do-or-die Game 5s.
Game 7 is Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, Aaron Bleepin’ Boone and Johnny Podres. Game 7 is 36 points and 19 assists for Clyde Frazier. Game 7 is the unparalleled Marv Albert saying the words Rangers fans like him had desperately waited 54 years to hear: “The New York Rangers have won the Stanley Cup.”
Game 7 is one of the best things about sports. Maybe the very best. Period. New paragraph.
“It’ll be a test,” Nets coach Steve Nash said Thursday night, after the Bucks had held serve a third straight time and pushed the series to its max. “That much we already know.”
For the Nets, it’ll be an exam with some extra-added impediments. Nash made it official that Kyrie Irving’s ankle will preclude him from playing Game 7. He said Irving’s season isn’t necessarily done — if the Nets survive, we may see him again — but also said Irving “still has some miles to make up.”
James Harden? Harden was pretty good in Game 5 when you consider he was still hobbled by his hamstring. But Harden’s masterful footwork is his most dangerous weapon — basketball’s version of Jacob deGrom’s fastball, or of Patrick Mahomes’ imagination — and that footwork is a memory right now. He plays on guts and grit and guile. The Nets hope that will be enough.
They hope Kevin Durant can make up for a lot of sins.
What makes this Game 7 so fascinating is the mountain of chips piled high on the table. There will be no such thing as a “good loss,” for either the Bucks or the Nets, both of whom have spent time this year as either presumptive or prohibitive favorites to win the championship.
The Bucks have been 60-22, 56-17 and 46-26 the last three years. They have had two-time MVP (and all-world defensive player) Giannis Antetokounmpo anchoring it all, and Antetokounmpo has had a splendid running mate in Khris Middleton the whole time — and they still have yet to make it out of the East. It is almost certain that Mike Budenholzer will be coaching for his job Saturday, especially now that Rick Carlisle has freed himself from the Dallas soap opera.
So that’s the Bucks.
But the Nets have just as much to lose if they lose. They have bought a few rounds of credibility and likeability with the way they’ve handled adversity in this series — notably Game 5’s epic comeback — but there isn’t one member of the basketball cognoscenti who will feel the least bit like giving them a mulligan because of injuries.
If anything, what the Nets have endured is what was expected all year long, when they could only field a full team eight times. And in 2021, there isn’t an NBA team left standing that isn’t also left hobbling. Injuries have ravaged these playoffs, and have been as notable a presence as Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker or Durant. The Nets have a small, closing window here. There is no guarantee next year will be better. Or even as good.
So there’s that.
So the Nets will play a Game 7 against the Bucks and a Game 7 for their own history of Game 7s, a stretch that dates to April 29, 1970, when they fell at the Louisville Convention Center to Louie Dampier and the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA’s Eastern semifinals — a seismic event hardly anyone noticed because the Knicks were engaged in a little series of their own against the Lakers at the same time.
Their three wins have all been inspiring — they upset Julius Erving and the Virginia Squires in 1972 on the way to the ABA Finals, beat George Gervin and the Spurs in 1976 on their way to the ABA title, beat Kyle Lowry and the Raptors — in Toronto, no less — for the franchise’s first-ever NBA Game 7 win in 2014.
Winning Saturday night would be equally rousing, and would keep alive the city’s hopes for a first civic basketball crown in 48 years.
Best to deal with that when — or if — you have to deal with that. But it’s Game 7. Something crazy will happen. Something great will happen. That much we already know. It’s Game 7.