It’s a slog. Brutal. Unforgiving.
In another world, another year — this West Coast road trip would be a season-killer.
Not this year and not with D’Angelo Russell.
With the Orlando Magic, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets all giving chase to the Brooklyn Nets’ precariously teetering seed, they’ve had to dig in their heels and put up a fight. Matched up with fellow All-Star Damian Lillard, Russell and the Nets would have their hands full. Portland, one of the league’s very best teams at home, have been red-hot despite the recent loss of certified baller C.J. McCollum. Even with the warm returns of Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis to the Moda Center, it would take a complete team effort to strike down a Western Conference powerhouse.
And that’s exactly what they got.
Early on, it was Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll, the team’s two stingiest veterans, to pick up what Russell was putting down. But with Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter bullying the Nets down low, they trailed by various single-digit numbers for much of the first half. In a zone — a strategy that found some early-season success against Portland, specifically — the Nets forced the Trail Blazers into plenty of 50-50 jump shots.
Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs, Evan Turner, Zach Collins, Seth Curry and Dudley all continued to trade blows — a sentence this writer was not prepared to pen tonight — and the evenly matched contest continued to ebb and flow. But Russell, again, was more than happy to carry the scoring load once again.
At halftime, the Nets were knotted in an old-fashioned slugfest, 62-62.
The third quarter-optional defense featured Russell, Lillard and a whole lot of Nurkic. Jarrett Allen, who tends to get bullied by bigger, more clinical centers, was punished by the entire Portland roster. If he wasn’t challenging Collins or Kanter to shoot from within the paint, Nurkic was bodying him out of the way. Before he went to the bench with four fouls in the late third, Nurkic had 22 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been quiet until the final frame, but his sudden awakening was worth the wait. Leading an 8-0 run to start the fourth, Dinwiddie actually put the Nets ahead — once again feeling the self-confidence juice that so often fuels his clutch efforts. Dudley’s 13 points were the most the veteran had scored since December, but every bucket tonight was crucial in the Nets’ chase.
But the biggest difference-maker was the Nets’ ability to get to the free throw line. While Brooklyn shot free throws on back-to-back-to-back possessions, it kept the Nets ahead while Russell rested. Dinwiddie, Carroll, Davis, Dudley and LeVert opened up a six-point lead with seven minutes remaining — but Lillard, naturally, would have plenty to say about that.
A Moe Harkless three-pointer with 2:30 remaining cut the Nets’ advantage to just three points, but a two-straight dribble-drives countered right back. But those pesky free throws — a facet that has reared its ugly head at the very worst moments — left Allen just 1-for-2 at the line. In the game, the Nets shot just 31-for-44 from the charity stripe — an unbelievable Achilles heel this late in the campaign.
Ahead by two, a crazy sequence left the Nets lucky not to give up the game-tying bucket.
Another missed free throw, this time from Russell, would leave the door open for Portland again.
A Russell turnover, Dinwiddie foul and a Curry split on the free throws gave the Nets the chance to deliver the knockout blow.
120-120, 3.5 seconds to go.
Would there be another season-defining moment?
Well, not yet anyway.
Russell rattled in the opening bucket of overtime, then notched a Moda Center-silencing And-1 two possessions later. Harkless and Rodney Hood sent punches of their own, but it was all Russell for Brooklyn. After Allen fouled out — and Ed Davis disqualified in the fourth quarter — the Nets were forced to go with Carroll and Dudley down low.
After Lillard and Nurkic pick-and-rolled the Nets to death, Dinwiddie would answer with a clutch three-pointer. 128-128 with 59 seconds left in overtime.
Keep breathing, keep breathing.
Then Curry and Russell traded buckets before Nurkic’s free throws left Brooklyn looking for answers again.
Guess who? Russell again. 39 points. Turns out, he’s up for the biggest moments.
But locked at 132-132, it would be the Portland with the opportunity to throw the haymaker.
They too, with all the control, came up empty-handed.
Without Allen and Davis, the Nets tried their darndest to contain Nurkic, but to little avail. Unfortunately, while battling the aforementioned Bosnian on the boards, he suffered a gruesome injury and crumbled to the floor. After a lengthy 10-plus minute pause, the remainder of the game barely mattered.
Still, the rules of dictate that a team must win — there are no ties.
The Nets, officially out of gas, gave a three-pointer to Hood with 58.8 to go that put Portland up by seven.
All but dead — yet not quite gone — Dudley, Carroll and Harris hit buckets to extend the game and force the Blazers to make their free throws. Hood would go 1-for-2, while Dinwiddie would make an easy two-pointer and then promptly foul out.
Some indiscriminate amount of traded free throws later, Portland iced it.
It took more than a few herculean efforts to even reach that point — but there are no moral victories in the NBA. And, as a result, their playoff seeding will likely suffer.
It’s a slog. Brutal. Unforgiving.
The Nets lose a stinger in double overtime, 148-144.
The stats: NURKIC: 32 PTS, 16 REB, 5 AST, 4 BLK
This grade is for Jusuf Nurkic, a dude that was absolutely manhandling the Nets before his gut-wrenching injury.
Having gone through this gauntlet of an emotional rollercoaster just a few months ago — it’s tough to care about the game’s ultimate result here.
Get well soon, Nurkic — the entire Nets community stands behind you.
The stats: 16 PTS, 5-8 FG, 7 AST
Silky smooth, it was an efficient outing for LeVert, a much-needed performance from their third-year hybrid-ball handler.
It seems certain that LeVert won’t quite reach his pre-injury levels again this season — but even just contributing like this will be more than enough.
Most NBA teams would kill to have a creator like LeVert off the bench — so the Nets will have to make due as he rediscovers his legs. Before the postseason, anything and everything counts, and LeVert will keep chipping away until he finds his big moment again.
Tonight was pretty close.
The stats: 18 PTS, 5-8 FG, 5 REB
Yeah, please go ahead and just leave DeMarre Carroll in the starting lineup from here on out — thank you.
The stats: 15 PTS, 6-8 FG, 5 REB, 3 AST
If this Nets-Blazers showdown was a crime scene, Jared Dudley would’ve been arrested on sight — he got his veteran-presence fingerprints all over this game.
After Allen and Davis fouled out, Dudley did his best at guarding Nurkic down low — and all things considered, performed admirably.
The stats: 22 PTS, 6-15 FG, 2 AST
We didn’t see much of Dinwiddie until the fourth quarter but his sizzle was key for the Nets. While Lillard and Russell both rested, Dinwiddie stayed aggressive and got to the rim multiple times. The headlines are rarely his alone anymore, but Dinwiddie is the league’s second-best player off the bench — that’s been his consistent role for almost two seasons in a row now.
Thanks for bein’ you, Spencer.
The stats: 6 PTS, 2-2 FG, 14 REB
Gobble those boards, Edward.
The stats: 39 PTS, 16-34 FG, 9 REB, 8 AST
Worth the price of admission, not Damian Lillard, tonight.
It looks like Russell is having some genuine, kid-like fun out there right — and it’s working. Ryan Ruocco said he was stunting, while many on Twitter managed to call him a magician.
At the end of the day, he’s the Nets’ All-Star — over and over and over, he’s acted the part.
That alone may be just enough to get Brooklyn to the postseason.
(Perhaps a little too much hero ball at the end, mixed in with a few high school-level turnovers — but they don’t reach that point without Russell. You’ve got to live with that from your star in March…)