- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
Mike D’Antoni was watching the Brooklyn Nets’ season-ending loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday night from his living room in Austin, Texas, a world away from the drama his protégé, Nets coach Steve Nash, had just lived through.
A year ago, D’Antoni had been on the Nets’ bench alongside Nash as the two-time MVP coached what will go down as one of the greatest teams that never was to within a shoe size of the Eastern Conference finals.
Nine years ago, D’Antoni had been on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench for another notoriously star-crossed season, when Nash, Kobe Bryant, Paul Gasol and Dwight Howard flopped their way to a first-round sweep.
But this year, this Nets season, was like nothing D’Antoni had ever seen.
“The situation was just so strange,” he said. “When you throw all the things that happened to them this year … and then having to fight for their lives for a month just to get into the play-in game … I don’t think it’s odd that they struggled.”
After it was all over Monday night in Brooklyn, Nash and the Nets’ superstars took their turns at the lectern, making similar allusions to the off-the-court drama that overwhelmed the Nets this season and left them exhausted on every level by the end of it.
Kyrie Irving called it “being the polarization of the media scrum” and “noise.”
Kevin Durant referenced a lack of “continuity.”
Nash spoke directly about “all those things off the floor” and how they affected the team on the court.
“Our guys wore down,” Nash said. “They’re tired.”
The final minutes of Monday’s game brought all of it to the fore.
With 2:45 to go, and Boston leading 109-103, Brooklyn caught a massive break when referee Sean Wright called the sixth foul on Celtics star Jayson Tatum.
On the next play, a resurgent Blake Griffin muscled a key offensive rebound over Boston’s Al Horford, leading to an Irving 3-pointer that cut the lead to three points. When Durant stole the ball from Jaylen Brown and hit a 14-foot floater to cut the lead to one with 1:28 to go, it seemed the momentum had swung toward Brooklyn.
But instead of salvation, the Nets found more exasperation in a season defined by it.
Durant missed back-to-back 3-pointers and a key free throw, Irving failed to box out Horford on an offensive rebound and putback after Griffin had kept Marcus Smart from converting a fast-break layup, and all that was left to do at the game’s end was shake hands and credit the superior team on a series sweep.
Afterward, Durant was asked if he had any regrets about the season, the series or the game.
“No regrets,” he shrugged. “S— happens. We’ve been through a lot this year. Everyone in the organization knows what we’ve been through.”
Durant started to list the things that have happened to the Nets this season, but he quickly lost interest in the recap: Irving’s battles with the city of New York over its vaccine mandate, the James Harden trade, the uncertainty over Ben Simmons’ back injury as well as his mental health, a COVID-19 outbreak, injuries, a lack of consistency and most glaringly, camaraderie that proved impossible to develop.
“I wish we were more healthy as a group,” Durant said. “I wish we had more continuity as a group. But that’s just the league. Every team goes through that.”
He seemed both tired of talking about the drama and uninterested in making excuses. Aside from his injuries, Durant had been the Nets’ most consistent player.
Only he knows how much of a physical and mental toll it took on him. Monday night he wasn’t in the mood to admit to any fatigue or use that heavy load as an excuse.
Nash, however, was blunt.
“Over the course of the season,” Nash said. “There were just too many [things].” In many ways the basketball world performed a season-long autopsy on what went wrong for the Nets.
But the premise of those analyses is flawed.
It isn’t what went wrong for the Nets, or what happened to them. It’s about the decisions that allowed these team- and culture-shattering problems to exist in the first place.
Whether it be Harden quitting on the team and asking to be traded midseason, Irving being unable to play in games in New York City and Toronto due to his vaccination status, or even Simmons’ decision to force a trade from Philadelphia after last season and drawn out a “ramp-up” process to play again, which never came to fruition.
The Nets’ management and ownership have tried to support their stars throughout the season. Generally, superstar players appreciate that kind of respect. But outside of Durant, the Nets’ superstars did not make good on the deference they were shown, and that’s a problem for a team built as a star system.
Just think how much time and energy the Nets wasted on off-the-court issues that could have been spent on basketball. How many hours were spent discussing Irving’s vaccination status? How much energy was spent deliberating on what to do with Harden? How many hours were spent deciding whether Simmons would play in Game 4, rather than how the Nets were going to adjust to the Celtics’ swarming defense?
Irving alluded to the toll and his responsibility in it after the game.
“It was just really heavy emotionally this season,” he said. “I felt like I was letting the team down at a point where I wasn’t able to play.
“I never want it to be about me, but I feel like it became a distraction at times.” Irving then reaffirmed the power he and Durant have been given within the organization.
“When I say I’m here with Kev, that entails us managing this franchise together — alongside Joe and Sean,” said Irving, who was referring to Nets owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks.
“We need to really be intentional about what we’re building.”
Irving spoke of his motivation to build a better team and culture next season, and not just relying on individual performance as the Nets so often had to this year. But he was clearly speaking as a star who has been fully empowered by his franchise, which is great when things work out but uncomfortable when they end as badly as the Nets’ season did.
If that sounds familiar, it is.
The West Coast version of the Nets — the Lakers — fizzled out in much the same way this season.
It’s ironic for a coach such as Nash, who made a name for himself as a player in a system as democratic as D’Antoni’s “Seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns, and a general manager like Marks, who was reared in the San Antonio Spurs’ culture hive, to have built a team like this.
Like everyone else, they will each reflect on what they could have and should have done differently. Then they will try it all again next season, hoping the lessons from this season will matter.
“The tough part is we all grew a tremendous amount, we just weren’t able to benefit from it this year,” Nash said postgame. “To have gone through everything we went through this year, to say goodbye is tough. Because we fought hard to stay together.”
Nash is right. The Nets fought. They just weren’t always fighting the opponents on the floor.
D’Antoni, for his part, still has faith in Brooklyn’s superstar-laden roster.
“You’ve not seen anything of what they can do,” D’Antoni said. “It needs to have a chance. But it’s New York, and New York is, ‘What have you done for me yesterday?’
“Hopefully they’ll be able to get that.”
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