Lance Stephenson led the Indiana Pacers past Brooklyn in a 103-86 laugher. (AP)
At the beginning of the season, the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets had one common goal: win a championship. The aging Nets were "all in" for this season; the Pacers ready to avenge their Game 7 loss to the eventual champion Miami Heat in last season's playoffs by coming back stronger than ever with a revamped bench and the return of Danny Granger.
Monday's matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers featured two teams who had one common goal in October.
After a putrid 103-86 loss for the Nets, That's about where the similarities end.
Though Indiana is a clear contender this season, their future looks as bright as any team in the league. Their core appears to be set for the foreseeable future with draft picks and cap space to work with along the way. Paul George has blossomed into a two-way superstar, and he delivered another elite performance tonight, with 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists on 10-19 shooting.
Brooklyn's season is quickly entering the stage where even a playoff birth is highly doubtful. You heard it right: a team which came into the season with championship goals and the highest payroll in league history is in danger of missing the playoffs 27 games into the season. The Nets are now 9-18, without their All-Star center for the rest of the season, and on the verge of desperation.
"It's getting very close to just accepting losing," Kidd said in his post-game press conference after showing up roughly 20 minutes late. "We're kind of getting comfortable with losing. We've got to make a stand with that because when things get tough, do we just give in? Most of the time right now, we do."
Kidd's star point guard Deron Williams understood Kidd's meaning, but disagreed.
"I'm not," Williams said. "I'm not comfortable with losing. It's not fun. It's not fun. Not only when we're losing during the game, but when you go home, sitting there thinking about it."
The game started out well for Brooklyn: they opened by making seven of their first eleven shots. There was a quick alley-oop and some fast break points as the Nets rushed out to an 8-2 lead. Brook Lopez's absence didn’t seem to hinder a Nets offense that had ranked 3rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency since the return of Deron Williams on December 10th.
The Pacers then turned up their defensive energy, showing why many believe they're the best team in the NBA. The Nets -- without Lopez, their go-to scorer -- had no answers.
Brooklyn proceeded to miss 22 of their next 29 shots, including ten field goal attempts at the end of the first half before Joe Johnson's buzzer-beating floater. The game, a six-point Pacer lead at the half, would only get worse.
The typical third-quarter struggles reared their ugly head once again as the Nets were outscored 30-19 in that period. The Pacers suffocated the paint and dominated the glass with towering big men Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi, and the Nets had no post presence to fight back.
The Nets finished the game shooting 38.2 percent from the field, 6 for 26 from three-point range, and the worst game of Paul Pierce's career. Pierce finished 0 for 7 from the field, recording his first scoreless game since his rookie season, and was ejected in the third quarter following a flagrant-2 foul.
Pierce and Kevin Garnett did not speak with the media following the game.
Head coach Jason Kidd has seemingly chosen his starting lineup for the foreseeable future, with Mirza Teletovic -- not Andray Blatche -- replacing Lopez in the Nets' frontcourt.
(See what other lineups the Nets can use here.)
It's unclear whether that alignment is the long-term solution for the Nets, and tonight's test against the league's best defense won't give you that answer.
All the Nets can do is continue to play, gain chemistry with the guys they have and hope that at some point, the overload of talent will mesh and become the group they envisioned it would be before the season began.
It's unclear where management and ownership will go from here: do they blow it all up, or do they stick with what they have to try and win the historically awful Atlantic Division?
Tonight's game would indicate that their one-time roll of the dice to compete for a title will have failed miserably.
Sure, the Nets will be able to sneak their way past teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic with the talent they already have, but Monday's game showed us why Lopez's injury has ended hope of a Nets title, in what was supposed to be a "one-year window."
But reality's starting to set in: their expensive first-class flight to an NBA championship may never get off the runway.
Additional reporting by Devin Kharpertian