Nets beat Cavaliers in Play-In, next face Celtics

For much of their NBA playoff against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, the Nets looked like the fearsome team many observers had long said was hiding behind their lackluster record. Kevin Durant was magnificent. Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a shot until the fourth quarter. Several teammates have made significant contributions far beyond what is usually expected of them.

And yet, the game still came down to the final minutes after Cleveland, who had trailed 20 points after the first quarter and then 22 in the third, cut their deficit to 6 with just over a minute left.

The job was finally done: the Nets cruised to a 115-108 victory to earn the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics. But the game was the latest example of a Nets performance that could be quantified as a jaw-dropping mix of world-beating talent and ominous lethargy.

For the half-glass crowd, Nets stars Irving and Durant combined for 59 points on 31 shooting while dishing out 23 assists, another display filling the stats of one of NBA C’s most talented tandems. It was, once again, a tantalizing glimpse of what their partnership could be at its peak — a pinnacle that was a rare sighting of their time together in Brooklyn.

But it wasn’t just them. Bruce Brown, the team’s MVP, had 18 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, often offering himself as a crucial relief valve on offense when Durant and Irving were getting blitzed by defenders. Andre Drummond punished Cleveland on the boards, scoring 16 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in just 19 minutes. Nic Claxton, the spry reserve center, added 13 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks off the bench.

But the half-empty glass set had evidence, too, after the Nets nearly lost yet another stretch lead to a lesser team. On Sunday at home against the Indiana Pacers, one of the worst teams in the NBA, the Nets suffered a similar end that came uncomfortably close. In the previous game — also against Cleveland — the Nets blew a double-digit lead in the third quarter. Before that, it was a game against the Knicks, another less talented team playing strings; the Nets trailed by 21 points in the first half that time.

All three of those games required fourth-quarter rallies to win, but all three repeated a pattern that played out for much of the season: The Nets, while extremely talented in a few places, are a team that has trouble putting together wire-to-wire performance. And in the playoffs, against the best teams in the league, that may be their Achilles heel.

“It’s been part of our journey as well,” Nets coach Steve Nash said Tuesday of trying to find a way to change his team’s penchant for flirting with disaster. “It’s not just about going out there and creating 20-point leads. Turn it into 30.

In the opener of their first-round series on Sunday, the Nets will travel to Boston and find a Celtics team that isn’t the same team the Nets easily eliminated last season. And, thanks to the Nets’ Brown, the Celtics will now have bulletin board material as motivation.

Asked about the Celtics on Tuesday, Brown suggested that the absence of Robert Williams III, Boston’s starting center and one of the best defensemen in the league, would mean “they’re less in the paint.”

The comments did not sit well with Durant, who dismissed them as “caffeine pride speaks”. Brown had said that with Williams out, the Nets “could attack” Boston’s Al Horford and Daniel Theis. referring to Horford and Daniel Theis, who round out the Celtics’ big man rotation. Durant grimaced and noted, “These two guys can do the same thing.”

Durant’s fitness is another lingering concern for the Nets entering the series from the Celtics. Just getting into the play-in tournament required a heavy workload for Durant, who played 42 minutes on Tuesday night. Since the All-Star break, Durant has averaged 38.6 minutes per game. While other league stars were able to manage their minutes – and save their legs – during the stretch run, Durant, 33, had to expend more energy than usual just to train his team in the playoffs.

One way or another, the Nets will enter the playoffs like they did last season: with high expectations and little time together. Last year it was the result of injuries and a trade for James Harden. This year, it’s the result of injuries and the decision to trade Harden (not to mention Irving’s extended absence following his refusal to get a coronavirus shot).

“We’re just a new band,” Nash said. “I think it was like the seventh game these nine players played together tonight. So every day is a day for us to learn about ourselves..”

All season, however, the Nets have been betting that talent trumps cohesion. That’s why they shuffled players in and out of the rotation with frequency, why they were willing to trade Harden. Tuesday night’s win showed a taste of the group’s championship potential.

In the first three quarters, in any case.

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