As an unmistakable feeling of desperation closed in on the Nets, Coach Steve Nash reached towards the deepest recesses of his bench on Saturday and summoned a former star in twilight. Blake Griffin shed his warm-ups, together with some cobwebs, and reported to the scorer’s desk.
Griffin, 33, has a bum ankle and a surgically repaired knee that at a earlier stage of his profession — again when he was dunking over midsize sedans as one of many faces of the N.B.A. — had a full allotment of cartilage. However he had not caught a whiff of taking part in time in 21 days, courting to the common season. Now, with the Nets trailing the Celtics in Recreation 3 of their first-round playoff collection, Nash turned to Blake for one thing, something — a spark, a elevate, perhaps even a miracle.
The Nets had been keen to take what they may get, and for a couple of superb minutes at Barclays Heart, Griffin delivered. He sank a few 3-pointers. He grappled for rebounds. He even tried to defend Jayson Tatum because the Celtics hunted for favorable one-on-one matchups in opposition to him.
Miracles alone don’t win playoff collection, a lot much less championships. And whereas there was a time, not so way back, when the Nets had been celebrated as the most recent superteam that appeared certain for excellent issues, they’ve found the laborious method that titles can’t be store-bought or unexpectedly cobbled collectively after months of accidents and dysfunction.
“I simply felt like we didn’t have the precise spirit all through the complete sport,” Griffin mentioned after the Nets’ 109-103 loss, which pushed them to the brink of an early low season.
Boston, a workforce that has been ascendant under Ime Udoka, its first-year coach, can shut out the Nets with a collection sweep on Monday night time, and it’s in all probability solely a matter of time earlier than this one will get wrapped up regardless: No workforce in N.B.A. historical past has come again from a three-games-to-none collection deficit.
Other than that inconvenient reality, the Nets seem acutely conscious that the Celtics are a extra full, cohesive workforce. Simply hearken to them. Griffin cited the Celtics’ top-ranked protection. (“It is a nice defensive workforce,” he mentioned.) Kevin Durant cited their size. (“I simply assume they received extra measurement than us,” he mentioned.) And Nash cited their capability to drive to the basket. (“We haven’t been capable of include the basketball,” he mentioned.) This isn’t a successful method for the Nets.
On Saturday, the Nets supplied up loads of small moments that typified bigger issues. However take into account one among their ultimate possessions, as Durant dribbled in opposition to the Celtics’ Grant Williams with the hope of making some house. Discovering none, Durant threw a bounce go to Kyrie Irving that was intercepted by Tatum, who raced away for a dunk that punctuated the win. It was the Nets’ twenty first and ultimate turnover of the sport.
“Poor decision-making,” Nash mentioned. “Not connecting easy passes, and so they’re going the opposite method.”
The Celtics have smothered Durant, limiting him to 22 factors a sport on 36.5 p.c taking pictures. On Saturday, he tried simply 11 area objectives. His postgame information convention sounded vaguely like remedy.
“I’ve simply been pondering an excessive amount of, to be sincere, this complete collection,” he mentioned.
After shooting 4 of 17 from the field in Game 2, Durant had come into Recreation 3 wanting to seek out his teammates extra typically and “let the ball discover me” inside the stream of the offense, he mentioned. However he was already questioning himself as he scrutinized one other depressing field rating in a collection filled with them.
“I in all probability ought to’ve took extra photographs,” he mentioned, including: “In my thoughts, I’m simply attempting to see how I might help everyone. Typically, I find yourself taking myself out of the sport.”
Durant was not the one star who struggled. Irving shot 6 of 17 from the sector and missed all seven of his 3-point makes an attempt. Nash blamed fatigue for a part of their woes. Irving is fasting for Ramadan. Durant has been supplying large minutes for weeks — first when the Nets had been scrambling to safe a spot within the postseason, and now as they attempt to survive in opposition to a superior opponent.
“They’ve each received to be drained,” Nash mentioned. “Fasting can’t be straightforward, ? If I am going play tennis and I haven’t eaten, I really feel like I’m going to fall over. So I can’t think about how he feels in an N.B.A. playoff sport.”
On the similar time, the collection has supplied contrasting approaches to workforce constructing. The Celtics’ core is basically made up of players whom they drafted and developed, a listing highlighted by Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That checklist additionally consists of Marcus Smart, the N.B.A.’s defensive participant of the 12 months, and Robert Williams, the fourth-year middle who returned to the rotation on Saturday about three weeks after knee surgical procedure.
In that method, the Celtics are paying homage to contenders just like the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies, groups that developed continuity and chemistry by sticking with their younger gamers.
The Nets went the opposite method, buying high-priced stars like Durant and Irving whereas buying and selling away their draft picks and prospects. It was championship or bust from the beginning. Typically that experiment pans out. The Los Angeles Lakers, in spite of everything, won the championship in 2020 by following the same script. However that appears to be the exception as of late, and the Lakers have since crumbled right into a pile of very costly and getting older mud after mortgaging their future to attempt to win now. The Nets will not be far behind.
The Nets, after all, have had a very disjointed season, and even earlier than the beginning of Recreation 3, Nash was rattling off an abridged checklist of the challenges his workforce had confronted: not having Irving for a lot of the season as a result of he refused to be vaccinated; trading James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers; shedding Durant for six weeks due to a sprained ligament in his knee. Nash mentioned he was not making excuses, however. …
“We’ve had only a few pockets with everybody capable of play,” he mentioned.
At this level, they might have solely one among them left.