The Nets are up against the clock.
After losing to the Boston Celtics, 129-106, on Thursday for their 13th loss in 15 games, there’s only one thing the Nets need to look at as a source of motivation.
The Eastern Conference standings.
Thursday’s loss moves them 3.5 games behind the sixth-seeded Celtics, which means the Nets need to win four more games than Boston to move ahead of them in the standings.
Why is the No. 6 important? It’s the line of demarcation for the sudden-death play-in tournament. If the Nets finish seventh or lower, they will be in jeopardy of missing the playoffs altogether. They are currently the eighth seed. If the playoffs started now, a win would solidify them as the seventh seed, while a loss would send them to a win-or-go-home matchup against the winner between seeds Nos. 9 and 10.
“We understand the situation we’re in,” said head coach Steve Nash after the loss. “We know there’s urgency. We know we’re not gonna have half a season to figure this thing out. We’re up against the clock.”
Which is why the Nets can’t afford to keep sitting their best players. They don’t have enough time — or quality depth — for this soap opera to continue.
Five of the Nets’ eight best players watched from the sidelines as the available players helplessly flailed while the Celtics ran up the score. The same is expected on Saturday, when the Nets travel shorthanded to Milwaukee to take on the defending champion Bucks.
Except Kyrie Irving can play on the road, where most vaccine mandates don’t apply to visiting players. Kevin Durant is nursing a sprained MCL, Joe Harris is recovering from ankle surgery, both Goran Dragic and Ben Simmons are improving their conditioning after sitting the entire front half of the season, and Irving is ineligible to play at ‘The Clays’ due to New York City’s vaccine mandate.
That left Patty Mills, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond as Brooklyn’s three best players against Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, who headline a newly improved Celtics defense that ranks atop the league.
“Our guys have been great cause there’s a lot of pressure and circumstances that make it difficult,” Nash continued. “They’re dropping in the standings, but their spirit has been outstanding. So that’s the spirit, I think, of taking it day-by-day, game-by-game, trying to improve, and at the same time, we recognize the situation that we’re in.”
Simmons is the biggest mystery omission from the Nets’ rotation: He is 25 years old and has been working out all year despite being away from the Sixers the entire front half of the season, yet Nash said Durant is closer to returning to action than Simmons. The Nets’ coach suggested both Durant and Dragic could touch the floor some time in the next two games.
Meanwhile, Simmons — who is healthy — has no firm date to join his new teammates.
“Conditioning,” Nash said. “Just got to try and get him a place where he can — it’s been a long layoff, right? So he hasn’t played NBA basketball for a long time, so just trying to work through that.”
The missing bodies are crippling to the Nets’ odds of climbing from their standing as eighth in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics have the league’s 10th strongest schedule, while the Nets own the 12th. The Celtics, however, have top-10 chemistry. The Nets do not.
Which is why it’s imperative the Nets get their best players back on the floor as quickly as possible. Without them, they are destined to continue their downward spiral down the Eastern Conference standings, further and further from the championship aspirations that have defined this season.
The Nets didn’t play a perfect game Thursday night, but they hardly need to play perfect when all their stars are on the floor. Health, or a lack thereof, is the only thing keeping the Nets subdued in the East.
“That’s it. That’s No. 1, 2, 3 and 4,” Nash said. “We could have played better tonight, but we could have played better on nights when we have everybody, too. So you’re not gonna play great every night, but in this league, you flip it.
“You take the Celtics and take 4 of their starters out, it’s a different look.”
There are now only 22 games left in the regular season, and just 21 if you fast forward past Saturday’s projected loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee.
Compounding matters isn’t who’s in front of the Nets, it’s who’s behind them.
The Nets are only two games in front of both the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. That means two more losses and two more wins from either Atlanta or Charlotte could move the Nets as low as 10th in the East.
The Nets play the Raptors twice in a row after their matchup against the Bucks. The Raptors are currently seeded seventh in the East and play a young group with a stingy defense.
There’s reason to believe, however, the Nets will turn it around — and fast.
Veteran forward James Johnson said Durant has been dominant in recent practices. Nash said Durant completed his first high-intensity workout in practice on Wednesday. The Nets’ main benchmark for a player returning from injury is the body’s response to multiple consecutive high-intensity workouts.
“Playing at full capacity—typically three times—before you can return without incident,” Nash said on Thursday. “But that’s kind of the markers we’re looking … I think Kevin’s probably the closest, but has some time to make up still.
“He played. He’s playing,” Nash added. “So we’ll see. He seems like he’s getting there and we’ll see how he responds tomorrow. And then we’ll try to get him in subsequent workouts.”
Nash was noncommittal about Durant’s availability for Saturday’s game.
“I’m sure it’s possible, but for me it’s probably, again, in the next 3 games more likely than Saturday,” he said.
Which means the Nets are closer to falling further down the standings, and if they can’t dig themselves out of this hole, they’ll be in sudden-death elimination territory.
That would be the worst-case scenario in Year 3 of the Durant and Irving era, but the losses have piled with absent bodies, and Brooklyn’s stars are set to return soon. That’s the reason reserve forward Bruce Brown isn’t concerned about the skid, though the schedule and competition might say otherwise.
“I’m not too worried about (the standings),” he said. “Because our guys are going to come back and we’re going to take care of business.”