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The Nets have the record of a championship contender, but they don’t have the resume.
That much was proven in their 117-99 loss to the league-best Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, yet another game the Nets were outclassed by a team competing for a championship.
“I just don’t think we’re in that (cream of the crop) category yet,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said postgame. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Nets (10-5) have beaten the teams they’re supposed to, a trend underscored by their 5-1 road trip riddled with fringe playoff teams. They have lost, however, to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, an Eastern Conference contender in the Miami Heat, a dark horse contender in the Chicago Bulls (albeit in the second game of a back-to-back), and the Warriors in Tuesday’s shellacking at Barclays Center.
Each of those teams are considered the NBA’s elite early on. The Nets have lost to each by double digits, including three blowouts. It’s reason the Nets should be concerned that Year 3 of the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era has the potential to end like the first two: fruitless.
The Nets have proven they can win games against average competition without Irving because they have two superstars, even if one of them (James Harden) is still working his way into form. They have also proven they need Irving — or something near equal value in return for a trade — if they’re going to get over the hump against the better teams.
“The goal is to be the best team at the end of the season, in the postseason. That’s the goal,” said Harden, who finished with a team-high 24 points. “But (we’re) probably not (a top team, yet). We’re probably nowhere near, but it’s a long season for us to get better and we will continue to get better.”
What was supposed to be a gunfight between two MVP candidates turned into bloodshed in Brooklyn. The Warriors turned ‘The Clays’ into The Bay: Warriors fans packed the crowd and cheered Stephen Curry louder than the hometown fans cheered Durant, and the Warriors rode that energy all the way to an impressive victory.
And boy was it ugly, because as Durant watched from the sidelines in the fourth quarter, Curry padded his stats.
This was supposed to be a matchup between two championship contenders, a boss battle between the reigning Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week. Yet as Durant struggled (6-of-19 shooting for 19 points), Curry slipped and slid around screens like a kid at the water park. He finished with 37 points on 12-of-19 shooting from the field and 9-of-14 shooting from downtown.
Curry set the tone early, dribbling two steps inside the City Edition Nets half-court logo before pulling up from the parking lot. He turned around and trotted back on defense before the shot went in. You know it did.
And he stayed in the game until the 5:19 mark of the fourth quarter, when the Nets’ starters were long gone, before Warriors coach Steve Kerr called a timeout to pull his MVP.
Before he checked out after the whistle, Curry banked in a three from closer to the logo than the three-point line. He could have had 10 threes and 40 points had he gotten his shot off sooner.
“He’s a master at what he does,” Durant said of his former teammate. “I’ve been saying that since he came into the league.”
Yet if it was Curry alone, the Nets may have fared better. Instead, Curry took up more real estate in the minds of his opponents than Nets fans took up seats at ‘The Clays.’
While Curry went nuclear in Brooklyn, it was the others who handed the Nets defeat. The Nets paid so much attention to the all-world shooter that Andrew Wiggins (19 points), Jordan Poole (15 points) and Draymond Green (11 points) all found themselves wide open at different points of the night.
The Warriors have had the same core of Curry, Green, Kerr and his coaching staff for years. The Bucks have built something similar around Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Mike Budenholzer’s coaching staff. The Heat have had their culture in place for decades. They each can work around the margins, plugging in players as complementary pieces.
Yet the Nets are in Year 3 of a championship experiment. They are in Year 2 of Nash’s first coaching stint, Year 2 of Harden’s trade to Brooklyn and at Ground Zero with Irving, who has not played this season due to his vaccination status. They folded 10 new players into their system this offseason, then watched helplessly as one of their three-best players decided not to get vaccinated, thus deciding not to help his team this season.
As a result, the Nets are not what their record says. Instead they are a team still searching for answers, answers that held up against the lesser tier and have been thoroughly packed away against the elite.
“We have to find our identity,” Harden said. “We’re still a brand new team, so we still have to find out what we’re good at, what we’re great at, what we can be great at, and it’s gonna take a long season, but we’re, what, 14-15 games in?”
Identity. That’s a keyword. It’s what the cream of the crop all have. You know what you’re getting from the Heat, from the Bucks, from the Warriors and, to a lesser extent, the Bulls. The Nets said they found their identity on the road, but it was an identity carved against teams they are far better than.
Meanwhile the Nets continue an unsavory trend: They went 5-1 on a six-game road trip riddled with lesser opponents, but have proven less than capable against teams with their same aspirations.
That’s possibly because they defined those aspirations at the start of the season, when they had three superstars to power the team. Right now, there are only two, and against the cream of the crop, the Nets have shown that two is not enough.