After all of the crazy variables that have defined — and threaten — their up-and-down season, the final task for the Nets is a simple one.
The Nets have the chance to seal the No. 7 play-in position in the Eastern Conference in their regular-season finale after pulling out a critical 118-107 win over the Cavaliers on Friday night at Barclays Center.
After Kevin Durant led the way with 36 points in 41 minutes to offset a poor shooting night by Kyrie Irving (7-for-22, 18 points), the Nets can clinch the seventh spot in the East with a win Sunday at home against the Eliminated Pacers.
Bruce Brown had a stellar all-around game with 18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and four blocked shots, while Andre Drummond also recorded a double-double (15 points and 12 boards) in the Nets’ third straight victory.
The Nets (43-38) pulled even with the fading Cavaliers, losers of 17 of their past 25, but coach Steve Nash’s team controls its own destiny by owning the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams. Finishing seventh or eighth would mean the Nets only would need to win one play-in game to qualify for the first round of the playoffs. The teams in the ninth and 10th positions would need to win twice to secure the No. 8 playoff seed.
All-Star guard Darius Garland scored 31 points for Cleveland and Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley added 17 points after missing the previous five games with an ankle injury.
“I think for us just knowing that we have that opportunity to take that position gives us a little more fuel to the fire,” Drummond said before the game. “I think they’re must-win games for us. I think we know what’s ahead of us and we know what’s going to happen if we do win these two games.
“I think our sense of urgency is a little bit higher than what it was before. And I think we’re prepared to take that next step.”
The Nets have dealt with various roster issues all season, most notably Irving’s absence from the lineup at home games until March 28 due to his decision to remain unvaccinated for COVID-19, as well as injuries to Durant and others. Ben Simmons (back) also hasn’t suited up for the team since his acquisition from the 76ers in the James Harden blockbuster trade at the February deadline.
Behind Durant and Irving, the Nets overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half Wednesday to beat the Knicks at the Garden.
Durant, who noted after that victory that “it’s too risky” having to come from behind so frequently, propelled the Nets to a 34-17 lead Friday night with 16 points in the first quarter.
The Cavaliers, who have been without All-Star center and former Net Jarrett Allen (finger) since March 6, drew within four points in the second quarter before trailing 62-54 at halftime.
The Nets’ cushion temporarily was pushed back to double digits early in the third, but Garland scored 11 points to front a 28-11 extended run, resulting in an 88-83 turnaround advantage for the Cavaliers entering the final period.
Durant sat down to start the fourth, but was back on the court after just 1:28 elapsed, and he put the Nets back ahead, 95-93, with a 3-pointer with 8:50 remaining. A dunk by Drummond and two free throws by Irving completed a 10-0 Nets spurt and extended their lead to six.
Consecutive triples by Durant and Brown pushed the lead to 105-97 just past the midway point of the quarter, with Brown sprinting down the court afterward with both arms raised over his head as the Nets began to pull away.