All of a sudden, the Brooklyn Nets have transformed from cellar-dwelling losers to full-fledged hope merchants — still, more than two-thirds of the way through the season, it’s hard to pinpoint the why or the how or even the when. The team is nearly the same from last year, give or take Jeremy Lin or Ed Davis, but their health has been even worse this time around than it was when they lost that aforementioned starting point guard exactly one game into the 2017-18 season. And yet, here they are, firmly entrenched in a battle for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets, who could’ve buried their heads in the sand after losing Caris LeVert in November, did not. When Spencer Dinwiddie underwent an unfortunately-timed surgery just ahead of the All-Star break, Brooklyn didn’t fold then either. With their first-round pick in tow following an eternity in basketball purgatory — and Zion Williamson up for grabs as the main prize — losing out for another painful season seemed to be a simple, but necessary, drop in the hat. And then they started winning and kept winning and surged up the standings against all odds.
Even at less than full strength, the Nets proved everybody wrong again. Most remarkably, somewhere along this strange road the Nets have taken back to relevancy, games like this one versus the bottom-rung Cleveland Cavaliers quickly went from oh-well to must-win.
And that’s why their late-game win tonight means everything in a microcosm: Ultimately, it’s the hope that’ll do you in.
After the Nets’ beautiful teardown of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, Brooklyn picked up right where they left off. Against the 16-win Cavaliers, it was another game that the Nets could not afford to slip through their grasp — happily, their All-Star was up to the task at hand. With nine points, four assists and three rebounds at the first quarter buzzer — including an impressive one-man fastbreak Shammgod-induced bucket — Russell had the home team with an 11-point cushion. But it wasn’t just him, it was Jarrett Allen (eight points, four rebounds) that tried to tear down the rim on multiple dunk attempts, joined by Allen Crabbe doing just a little bit of everything too.
At this point, firing on all cylinders against the lowly teams like Cleveland is not just desired — it’s expected.
But make no mistake, it was The Russell Show without question once again in the opening half, almost as if he were teleported back to that magical three overtime performance last month. He dropped no-look lead passes to DeMarre Carroll, tossed alley-oops to Allen and lulled slower, bigger defenders to sleep on the perimeter. However, their early lead fell swiftly in the second quarter as the Nets were unable to deter David Nwaba (14 points) off the bench. Brooklyn’s second unit dropped a scorching 68 points versus Dallas but struggled to a damming 4-for-12 start — a number that wouldn’t boost much until the late fourth quarter.
Of course, Kevin Love, a multi-time All-Star, missed that triple-overtime thriller and the freshly-returned forward made his presence known on the boards. His 12 rebounds — combined with an efficient nine points from Larry Nance Jr. — kept the Cavaliers alive. A second chance three-pointer by Spencer Dinwiddie with 30 seconds remaining in the half left the Nets slimly in control — but if the Nets wanted to take care of business, they’d have to improve massively in the second half.
Earlier this week, Michael Balzary — more commonly known as Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist — fired off a now-infamous tweet that criticized the Los Angeles Lakers’ longtime rebuilding efforts.
“Do you realize there are fans out here that really care?” Flea said. “. . . I don’t give a s— about a star, build a team that loves and plays together.”
Been there, done that.
And although there are some striking similarities between how owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Magic Johnson have attempted to build their respective teams — more on that at another time — those aching sentiments must ring particularly true to Nets supporters. It’s also why this season, regardless of where it eventually ends, has been so damn fun, likable, and, most importantly, worth getting behind at every wild turn. There is no looming free agent to woo, nor is there an if-they, but-they-could, maybe-they-will addendum tacked onto every lingering sentence or game recap.
Almost overnight, the Nets have gone from plucky maybe-next-years to sending four — count ‘em, four — representatives to Charlotte for All-Star Weekend, a break that was full of kind words for their head coach and front office too. But raised expectations are also why back-to-back-to-back ugly losses forced those that have written about Brooklyn all season with giddy aplomb to suddenly take stock. For years — and as the former Managing Editor of this very site — bad losses, both to good teams and even worse ones, eventually came to roll off like a waterproof raincoat.
Are the Nets actually good this season or did everybody accidentally conflate fun with good? On most nights, they’re certainly both and in the Eastern Conference, that’s often more than enough. But it’s a question I’ve personally battled with all season, I can readily admit that with shaky confidence. Still, I’ve lost count of how many overzealous text messages I’ve sent in a Celtics fan-filled text thread that we’ve shared every season since that miscalculated Billy King deal — like a virus, this team grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go.
No longer the punchline, all rationality tends goes out the window.
Following the half time pause, Russell got bench mob extraordinaire Theo Pinson dancing early and often. And although the Cavaliers’ brilliant rookie Colln Sexton appeared ready to go toe-to-toe, the All-Star guard just continued to heat up. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the nearly-scoreless Love woke from his slumber too, posting 11 points in the first six minutes of the third quarter. During this stretch, the Cavaliers grabbed their first lead since 6-4, fully completing another classic double-digit collapse for the Nets.
In spite of Dinwiddie and Russell’s best efforts, the Nets’ two-headed backcourt monster, the Cavaliers held court in Brooklyn, getting whatever they wanted both inside and out. If not for a few late, determined buckets from Dinwiddie, Cleveland might’ve opened up an even larger lead in the all-important third quarter. After dropping three disappointing games to Washington, Charlotte and Miami, the Dallas and Cleveland were sharply underlined with must-win proclamations. Given their virtual tie in the standings with Detroit — and the Hornets and HEAT both breathing down their backs too — a loss against the Cavaliers would be nothing less than a tragedy.
The red-hot Nwaba just followed up his impressive first half by tallying 22 points, a new career-high, before the third quarter ended. Two late free throws from Allen — preceded by another Dinwiddie blow-by — left the Nets down 85-80 with 12 minutes to play.
If you’d noticed a rather important name missing from these previous paragraphs, you’d be absolutely correct. With Russell resting up early on, LeVert was given the keys to the well-oiled offensive machine and he did not disappoint. Bringing some much-needed crunch-time energy, LeVert splashed a three and then gave the lead back to Brooklyn on the very next possession. Add in two more free throws and a bold three-pointer with 14 seconds left on the shot clock and LeVert had fast boiled up a serious stew. Paired with a revitalized Dinwiddie to great impact, it became clear all at once how badly the Nets have missed having that bucket-getting duo on the court during the most crucial moments.
And then the dam broke.
Dinwiddie made a couple of back-to-back gritty buckets, Harris then finally got one to fall. Next, Dinwiddie tossed an alley-oop to Air Latvia from nearly half-court, then the latter swatted Sexton before a fastbreak ended in another big-time Dinwiddie three-pointer. In the span of three minutes, the Nets took the lead and never looked back — tossing down a 14-0 run that secured the lead for good.
Frustratingly, it may have taken 42 minutes and change, but the better team finally put the game away.
Now into March, there’s absolutely an enjoy-it-while-it-lasts feel surrounding the 2018-19 Nets. But for those that are well-settled within this circle — those that have taken their numerous pick-less lumps over the last three or so years — they have the most deadly weapon of all reholstered by their side: Hope.
For the first time since Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot at the final buzzer of Game 7 in 2014, the Nets have a product worth believing in. And although their captivating season has been the talk of the town for some time, Brooklyn’s ceiling is still an unflinchingly tough first-round exit — yet, that hardly matters at all. Once upon a time, losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers hurt a whole lot less than they would have now. These are no longer bonus throwaway games at the end of a long season for a team with no plottable future. In fact, the Nets — as a presumed postseason-worthy franchise — are now expected to win these games. And it feels good too.
With their nightmare road trip on tap, the Nets needed to take care of business and, fortunately, they did. But win or lose, postseason victors or not, Brooklyn has earned their rightful spot in an ultra-competitive NBA hierarchy.
Far before Flea fired off his expletive-laden tweet this week, a wise man once posited that it’s often not about the destination, but about the journey. In other words, thankfully, it’s no longer championship-or-bust in Brooklyn — they learned that lesson the hard way — but instead, this season has been their earnest attempt to give the people what they really want: A team worth rooting for.
At long last, win or lose, those Brooklyn Nets are back — and that alone is cause for celebration.
D’Angelo Russell Point Guard
25 PTS, 9-20 FG, 4-8 3PT, 4 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 5 TO
As a golden rule of thumb, if you break out the Shammgod, you’re getting an A+ grade on principle alone. Thankfully, D’Angelo Russell did so much more than just that single highlight.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 7, 2019
It was a hot start for Russell from the get-go, both scoring and dishing that All-Star-worthy confidence. His budding partnership with Jarrett Allen in the pick-and-roll has been noteworthy too — but, most importantly, he knows when to take things into his own hands as well.
The blown lead set up Russell for another quintessential fourth quarter bonanza… and yet, he was hardly needed. When LeVert and Dinwiddie took turns heating up, Russell was content to play in a facilitator role alongside them. There was no big culminating moment for their superstar tonight, but his strong start helped his team get to the all-important finish line one way or another.
Jarrett Allen Center
15 PTS, 6-7 FG, 11 REB, 3 AST, 1 BLK
With Tristan Thompson glued to the bench and Kevin Love forced to play the five, the Nets looked to find Jarrett Allen as many looks from as close as humanly possible. Russell, LeVert, Harris, Crabbe and Dinwiddie all penetrated and tossed easy, high percentage passes for their blossoming big man — that’s not a coincidence by any means.
Allen will focus on getting bigger and stronger this summertime but in opportunities like this, the second-year center tends to take full advantage. Tonight, he most definitely did so.
Oh, and, you know, there was this monster slam dunk too:
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) March 7, 2019
P.S. — Stop biting on those three-point pump fakes!
Caris LeVert Shooting Guard
14 PTS, 5-12 FG, 4 REB
Caris LeVert was quiet until the final frame but it was absolutely worth the wait.
When the Nets needed a late-game force, LeVert was there to pick up the slack — even pushing the good guys to a 7-0 start in the period. Brooklyn has so badly missed his shot-creating presence but he was absolutely unguardable for a solid chunk of minutes tonight. LeVert is still finding his legs after his extended time on the injury report, but sooner or later, performances like this will be the norm once again.
Without LeVert, this game may have just slipped away.
Spencer Dinwiddie Point Guard
28 PTS, 10-21 FG, 4 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK
What a relief it’s been to have Spencer Dinwiddie back in the fold.
When the Nets badly needed somebody to step in and make some shots, the enigmatic guard happily obliged. Aside from a couple of forced early attempts, Dinwiddie played extremely well against Cleveland and even supercharged their intense, game-winning late burst.
Whether he’s throwing long-range alley-oops or taking centers off the dribble, his arrival on the scene was much appreciated. 28 points with ease and flair, that’s what Dinwiddie brings off the bench — an invaluable piece to these postseason hopefuls.
Once he’s fully knocked off the rust, it’ll be game on for the Nets.