I’ve never been good with death. It either hits me like a freight train or I deny it entirely. I was in high school when my grandfather died, and I cut class for the rest of the day, not by leaving school but by sitting in the hallway, mortified and stagnant until my dad picked me up. But when my aunt died last month, I had a beer, called my sister, and moved forward. That was just how I grieved. When high school basketball coach died this past year, I went about my day like nothing had happened, and I’ve thought about him every day since. It’s weird. I’ve never quite known how to process it because there’s a constant anxiety in the back of my head that I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel.
I guess part of growing up is learning that you don’t learn how to deal with everything. That’s true of fandom, too. You learn how to deal with instantaneous ups and downs from box scores and highlight reels. The great ones are great, the ones that suck suck, but less so. They’re part of an overall ether now, one that doesn’t live and die by every game. So figuring out how I’m supposed to process this team’s death, when it both affects me to the core and leaves me kind of numb, is a process that’ll always be unfamiliar.
I rode high last summer. Paul Pierce & Kevin Garnett were a year older, but they were supposed to die four years ago. Garnett was immortal, an undead soldier with heart stronger than his knee and an impact beyond the box score. Pierce was a rigid first option, one his entire career, but he was also Paul f***ing Pierce, he’d figure it out. This was a crash course in championship-building.
Then, they were supposed to die in December. Lawrence Frank, a cup of soda, and Brook Lopez, their most talented and youngest player, were lost in battle. They were 11 games under .500 without their first-round draft pick. They had three stars closer to retirement than their rookie seasons. Garnett couldn’t make a jumper and Pierce couldn’t change a game. They were stars in name and recognition, but not on the court. This was a crash course in hubris.
Wade says "you never really bury" Garnett & Pierce. "I don't think we really want to, b/c they're incredible competitors."
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 15, 2014
Then the probable happened, in improbable fashion. The Nets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on a fallaway jumper from Joe Johnson, kicking off a 34-17 2014 run. We saw a vintage Garnett playing center in January, making game-saving defensive plays, hitting his patented turnaround jumper, and yelling incoherent, boastful words at teammates. They didn’t force their offense into Lopez, they spread it around Garnett, firing 26 three-pointers per game.
Pierce took on his role as third option with dignity. Shaun Livingston, who joined the team nearly seven years after his own basketball near-death experience, slid into the starting lineup to replace the 7’2″ Lopez, and morphed them into the league’s best turnover-inducing defense. A cool Joe Johnson, known best for his contract and allegedly undeserved All-Star appearances, burned. Castoffs Alan Anderson and Andrei Kirilenko provided good minutes off the bench. A forgotten Mirza Teletovic hit threes and laughed in LeBron James’s face. An enigmatic Andray Blatche was a whirling dervish of confused excellence. Good Deron Williams™ showed up as often if not more than Bad/Crippling Ankle Pain Deron Williams™.
This was a crash course in fearless adjustment.
The roadblocks didn’t end. They were supposed to die when Kevin Garnett went down with back spasms, until Mason Plumlee stepped in and made the team quicker. They were supposed to die when Deron Williams went without an assist in two games, until he followed up the second one with a double-digit assist game and ended the year with the team’s best plus-minus. They were supposed to die when they lost two games to the Knicks and home-court advantage in the playoffs, until the playoffs started.
They were supposed to die after falling behind 26 points in the third quarter of Game 5 against the Raptors, when the loudest crowd I’d ever heard chanted “BROOKLYN” with derision. They were supposed to die after mounting an incredible comeback to tie that same game up, with Joe Jesus Joe Cool Iso-Joe Joe Marcus Johnson leading the way, only to lose anyway and face 7 percent odds to advance.
Kyle Lowry should’ve killed them for good in Game 7. He had the weapon. With his team down one and six seconds left, he split Garnett and Williams with a clear lane to the basket and a two-on-one. It was a story all too familiar: Lowry would hit the shot, put his team up 1 as the series and season expired, and leave the Nets baffled with nothing to show for their lavish spending but five fewer wins than before their retooling.
And then, as if he’d been lifted by Joe Jesus himself, Pierce’s outstretched fingers swatted Lowry’s shot away harmlessly, preserving Brooklyn’s chance at the defending champions in a building that couldn’t stand his presence. Not dead yet.
It had to end eventually. Even if you wanted a championship run, you couldn’t have expected it, not with how the regular season played out. There were too many issues, too many question marks, and the Heat were just a better team. You could expect a run to the Heat, but through the Heat was just gravy. If the Nets were undead, then LeBron James was Vampire Hunter, Abe Lincoln beard and all. He was just too good for a seven-game series.
But they had every opportunity to fold and shuffle aside, to abandon their great plan and pack it in for next season. They didn’t. Because this Nets team wasn’t a team of destiny or a team of failure. They were a team of goddamned zombies. They weren’t close to death, they embraced it, hearts in hands. They saw sunlight and bought an umbrella. They stumbled through brick walls with the grace of a landslide, but they still stumbled forward, as far as they could go until they could move no more, swallowed by a double-team on their best player.
So tonight didn’t mark the death of a Nets team, but the death of an idea that had long been on life support. The idea that money bought you at least the Eastern Conference Finals. That the Nets could build a championship team around Deron Williams in his prime that now looks frustratingly behind him. Whether or not Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce end up in a Nets uniform — or anywhere — next season, the Nets will once again go back to the drawing board, without an immediate answer for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Durant or Gregg Popovich.
But I’ll remember this team, this season, as the crew that hung by a thread for months beyond their expiration date. For 37-year-old Kevin Garnett screaming at his teammates in the locker room. For Paul Pierce reminding us why he’s here. For Joe Johnson hitting game-winning shots with the flair of a bowl of cereal. For the Nets getting one round further than they had the season before. They were supposed to be dead, long ago, and somehow made it just long enough to make for their most entertaining season since the Kidd Finals trip.
Thanks for a fun(dead) season, Nets. Whatever you look like, see you next year.