Nets stay resilient despite 9-game skid: ‘Tough times don’t last. Tough people do’

James Johnson and rest of no-name Nets fall hard against Marcus Smart (r.) and Celtics in Brooklyn. (Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

After the Nets lost their ninth straight game, this time by 35 points at home to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, veteran forward James Johnson delivered a message he says is consistent with what he’s told his teammates:

“Stay together. Keep talking through it,” said Johnson. “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

The Nets couldn’t have envisioned times as tough as these, not when they formed the Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden a year-and-change ago. But here they are, losers of nine in a row with no definitive pathway back to a win except healthy bodies returning to the roster.

The Nets were short six of their seven best players against the Boston Celtics and, to no one’s surprise, they played like it. With Durant (sprained MCL), Irving (ineligible for home games), Joe Harris (ankle surgery), LaMarcus Aldridge (ankle sprain) and Nic Claxton (left hamstring tightness) already expected to miss Tuesday night’s matchup, Harden’s early scratch due to left hamstring tightness delivered a kiss of death to an already severely undermanned roster.

The result was a Nets team that was clearly and thoroughly outmatched by the Celtics’ stars in an embarrassing 126-91 finish on their home floor. And with no definitive answer as to whether or not Harden, who is embroiled in trade rumors, will play on Thursday against the Wizards, there’s no clear end to this losing streak in sight.

Yet Nets head coach Steve Nash has remained cool, calm and collected despite his team’s struggles. He has been forward in his belief that the Nets may, in fact, lose-out until the NBA All-Star break, after which the team is expecting Durant to return from injury.

The Nets are currently the No. 8 seed, and if the regular season ended today, they would be in a sudden-death showdown for their playoff lives. The playoffs, however, are still months away, while a blessing in the form of good health – knock on wood – is expected to come in a few weeks.

“We can’t magically repair those injuries and have everyone back and have everyone go back more to their natural roles and positions,” Nash said postgame. “That’s something that we’re just gonna have to continue to play through until the time comes, but there’s no reason for us to get down and panic. We’re asking a lot of these guys and we’re really proud of the way they’ve responded.”

Yet the facts remain: 17,732 hard-working New Yorkers paid for seats to the game on Tuesday, only to watch a star-less Nets team get blasted out of Barclays Center. That might not change until the Nets finally have their starters back on the floor, which might not happen for another two weeks, when they return from the NBA All-Star break.

The Nets have now lost nine games in a row, and if Harden isn’t playing on Thursday in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, the Nets are in danger of losing 10 straight, even if Irving suits up on the road. And if the Nets lose 10, you might as well call it 11, because there’s no way the Nets are beating the No. 1-seeded Miami Heat two games from now, especially if Harden isn’t playing then, either.

And if Brooklyn’s struggles continue beyond this upcoming two-game road trip, the Nets could easily see their losing streak extend to 13. That would include losses to the Sacramento Kings, who just upended their roster for All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis, and a loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where The City’s vaccine mandate also prevents Irving from playing.

For what it’s worth, Nash is not worried about wins and losses at this point in the season.

“I don’t think its a case of worrying, you know? It is what it is,” he said. “There’s not much we can do – we control what we can control, and that’s how we support these guys through this. And they’ve done a great job, like I said, of keeping their spirits high and their competitive spirit to go out there and continue to play even if we’re on a losing streak and we’re losing by 20, 30 points they continue to compete.”

With no stars in tow, the Nets trotted out a starting lineup of Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, rookie Kessler Edwards, DeAndre Bembry and Blake Griffin. Against Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics stars, now coached by former Nets lead assistant Ime Udoka, this was a no-contest. None of Brooklyn’s starters scored more than six points.

The Celtics ran up a 14-0 lead to open the game and extended their advantage to a 28-2 before the Nets fought back. The only signs of life came from backup point guard James Johnson and third-string guard Jevon Carter, who combined for 38 points and made Brooklyn’s outing a bit less of an embarrassment and only slightly more respectable.

Meanwhile Boston’s Tatum, Brown and Marcus Smart combined for 67 points through the first three quarters before resting the entire fourth period.

There’s no telling when the Nets win their next game. They could get lucky in D.C., especially if both Harden and Irving play, but Nash was noncommittal about Harden’s availability against the Wizards on Thursday.

“I think it’s premature (to rule Harden in or out for the game against the Wizards), but I also have no idea how the strength tests are (and) what his level is right now,” Nash said. “We’re just trying to get him stronger, get him back to a place where he feels confident, (and the performance team) feels confident that he can go back out there and explode and be ready to go.”