Nets’ season will end early if they can’t learn to close

The ball was in the air and it sure looked good because of course it looked good, because just about every time Kevin Durant lets one fly it looks good, and more often than not it is good.

The buzzer groaned at Barclays Center and 17,917 fans awaited the verdict, ready to provide a roar that would’ve been the equal of the intensity on the floor the previous 53 minutes. A swish would bring sweet release all the way from the (relatively) cheap seats. And give the Nets a huge boost.

But the ball didn’t swish. It clanked against the rim and bounced away. The roar was replaced by solemn quiet. The boost went bust. One more time, the Bucks would walk away from Barclays with a heart-stopping win, this time 120-119. The Bucks jumped off their bench. The Nets trundled off to the locker room.

“We need to win that game,” Bruce Brown said, shaking his head sadly.

That is actually more than mere platitude, too. The Nets really do need to learn how to win games like this, against teams like this. We are no longer in the abstract with this team. This was the Nets’ 47th game against a team with a winning record this year. They’ve won 19 of them. Soon, every team they play will have a winning record, and there will be real consequences for failing to win those games.

“We’re a brand-new group, really, playing against the champs,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “We really haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play together.”

Kevin Durant's three-pointer misses to end the Nets' loss to the Bucks.
Kevin Durant’s shot misses as time expires in overtime.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Sorry, but as truthful as that may be it is an excuse that simply doesn’t fly any more. Kyrie Irving may be new to Barclays Center (where the Nets are now a discouraging 1-3 with him in the lineup, which is an even worse percentage than their 17-21 overall home record). But he is now 23 games into his season. His situation is what it is. They have to figure this out, and not on their own schedule.

This game, in truth, was especially galling. With 3 minutes and 1 second left, the Nets led by nine and Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a pair of foul shots. But Wesley Matthews, of all people, snuck in for a putback, and that sparked the Bucks on an 11-2 run to close out regulation, capped by an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer with 18.7 seconds left.

Nash can explain away his team’s lack of familiarity over the course of a 48-minute game and there are elements of fairness to that. But when you have Irving and Durant on your side, there is simply no explanation for being held to two points over the final 181 seconds of a game. That’s why they’re here. They are supposed to be closers.

Instead, the two of them and the rest of the Nets graciously left the door open for the Bucks, and the Bucks reminded everyone inside Barclays Center what a legitimate champion does with such opportunities. Champions seize those moments. Also-rans observe them.

“Sometimes effort needs to be there as much as talent,” Irving said.

Kevin Durant (left) and Kyrie Irving (right) during the Nets' loss to the Bucks.
Kevin Durant (left) and Kyrie Irving (right) during the Nets’ loss to the Bucks.
Getty Images

“It’s something for us to build on,” Nash said. “There’s plenty of room for improvement.”

If this were November, even January, Nash’s Pollyanna lyrics might actually be reasonable. But this isn’t November. It isn’t January. We are now into April, and we are less than two weeks away from the play-in tournament. And in the play-in, one off-night — hell, one bad 181-second stretch — could end a season in a hurry.

Look, the Nets give you plenty of evidence every time they play if you want to believe they can take this all the way from play-in to parade, all the way from a potential one-and-done road game to Borough Hall and redemption. There was plenty of that Thursday night, in truth. For 45 minutes, every time the Bucks came close, or took a lead, the Nets had a 6-0 or 11-2 run in their back pocket, and it always looks glorious.

And means little when the scoreboard reads as it read Thursday night after Durant’s 22-footer bounced away.

“We do things pretty well for three quarters,” Irving said. “In the fourth quarters we have to be a veteran ball club and buckle down on both ends of the floor. We’re still trying to get to know each other.”

It’s a fair point and a true point but also an irrelevant point. And if the Nets aren’t careful, it’ll be a point they’re making as they explain away a lost season, not merely a lost game, and by then nobody will be listening anymore.

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