ATLANTA — The Nets started this regular-season looked at as a superteam. They’re all but assured of ending it as a play-in team. All that remains is to determine where, and against whom.
With five games left on the schedule, the Eastern Conference’s 10 postseason participants are already etched in stone. The Nets can’t fall out of the play-in, which starts April 12; And they would need to run the table — as well as have Toronto lose out — to climb out of the play-in and into sixth.
Still, the Nets (40-37) still can finish anywhere from seventh to 10th, and Saturday’s game in Atlanta should go a long way to deciding where they end up. They entered Friday two games behind seventh-place Cleveland, and even with Charlotte and Atlanta — whom they play Saturday — in eighth only via tiebreaker.
The benefit of holding onto eighth instead of falling to ninth or 10th is huge.
The No. 8 seed plays double-elimination needing just a lone victory. The bottom two play-in squads face the daunting prospect of single-elimination needing not one but two wins. And the reward is facing the No. 1 seed in the first round.
While Thursday night’s nationally-televised overtime slugfest against defending champ Milwaukee got all the attention, it’s easy to see why Saturday’s tilt against Trae Young and the pick-and-roll heavy Hawks — winners of four straight — will have the greater impact.
Kevin Durant is expected to shake off Thursday night’s twisted ankle to play in Atlanta, while Seth Curry (ankle) and Bruce Brown (illness) are questionable.
Meanwhile, their remaining slate (at Atlanta, vs. Houston, at the Knicks, vs. Cleveland and vs. Indiana) is the easiest in the entire NBA according to Tankathon at a .418 winning percentage. Atlanta’s is 21st and Charlotte’s is 14th.
In short, there are no excuses.
“I just worry about Saturday,” coach Steve Nash said. “Just worry about our next game. Play well in our next game. Recover. Look it over, talk it over, find ways that we can improve and move on.”
The Nets have much to improve. They come into Saturday dead last in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage (70.1). The Nets allowed two dozen offensive boards at home against Memphis, a sight that Nash admitted “makes me want to throw up in my mouth.”
The Nets’ boardwork has been nausea-inducing, especially when Andre Drummond is off the floor.
The story of their overtime loss to the Bucks was getting outrebounded, 57-41, and hammered 17-5 on the offensive glass. In a game that the Nets play fairly well offensively, it’s easy to see what it cost them.
“The offensive rebounds they had,” Durant said. “You look back, we forced 22 turnovers. They didn’t play great; they shot 44 percent. We shot 46 percent. We shot well from the 3. [But] they out rebounded us.”
The Nets actually guarded and stayed in front of their man, forcing misses, but they couldn’t secure the defensive rebounds. They couldn’t close out possessions, or in the end the game, blowing a seven-point lead with 2:14 to play.
In that final, fateful two minutes, they couldn’t secure the board after a missed Bucks free throw, letting Wesley Matthews snake in for an offensive rebound. And after finally getting superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to miss a layup with just under two minutes left, they saw Bobby Portis tip in the putback.
Milwaukee attacked the glass and got rewarded with free throws. The Nets didn’t and got punished. They’re not going to remake their DNA as a smallish finesse team, but they have to learn lessons from this.
“One of the stats that really points out for me is just the free throws being the difference in it. Whether that’s on the refs or whether that’s on our aggression I think that’s one of the things we can control a little bit better,” Kyrie Irving said.
“I just think as a professional there are going to be games where you’re on top of your game, and there’s going to be others where your effort is going to have to get you the win rather than your talent.”