NBA draft: Top prospects in the class of 2021
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson breaks down the top names to know in the upcoming 2021 NBA draft.
NEW YORK — Just four seasons ago, the Brooklyn Nets were mostly considered inept, devoid of talent and, like their cross-borough counterpart the New York Knicks, not taken seriously in NBA circles.
To change fortunes in hurry, draft picks have to pan out and free agents have to view the team as a destination.
Kenny Atkinson came in as coach, and later Jacque Vaughn, and did a commendable job getting the team to two straight playoff appearances. Amid rumors of player discontent, Atkinson was fired after exiting in the first round each time.
Before Atkinson’s last season in 2019-20, the Nets got the help they needed through shrewd wheeling and dealing that allowed the flexibility to open up much needed cap space.
Kevin Durant was the first domino to fall after his three-year stint with the Golden State Warriors when he signed a four-year, $164 million contract with Brooklyn.
Kyrie Irving joined the fray when was traded from the Boston Celtics after two turbulent seasons. But Irving played only 20 games in the pandemic-shortened season and Durant missed the whole campaign rehabbing the torn Achilles he suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Hall of Famer Steve Nash, who had no head coaching experience at any level, was brought in to expound his vast knowledge of the game as a two-time MVP and manage millionaire egos.
James Harden was acquired early this season from Houston as part of a four-team blockbuster. But over the latter part of the season, the three All-Stars rarely played together, each nursing various injuries and limiting any chance of chemistry.
The lack of cohesion showed Saturday in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks. The crux of the Nets’ offense late in the first half on three straight possessions was Durant with the ball with a teammate on the same side of the court trying to set a pick. When that didn’t work, the screening player maneuvered his way over to join his other three teammates and let Durant take his defender one-on-one and hope magic happened. In Game 7, it almost did.
None of that matters now, as the star-studded Nets are headed home for the summer with plenty of time to contemplate what if and what could have been. A Game 7 loss at home simply came at the wrong time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as the Bucks beat the Nets 115-111 in an overtime thriller.
Khris Middleton chipped in with 23 points, including the game-winner with 40.7 seconds left in the extra frame as Milwaukee on the road and handed the Nets their first home loss of the postseason. Brooklyn had only lost three times against Eastern Conference teams at the Barclays Center this season.
Brooklyn’s only points in overtime came on a Bruce Brown layup. The Nets missed their last 10 shots of the game.
As the Nets head into another offseason without raising a banner, the health of their players is now the central issue. Nash says they know they could have won the series and he believes they will regroup and be motivated next season.
“With Kyrie out, and James on one leg, you have to understand it’s not normal. I think we proved tonight that we could. You always know that there is a chance. We just faced one too many obstacles,” Nash said. “They gave us everything and that’s all you can ask for.”
Durant scored 48 points, including 15 in the last eight minutes of regulation, while playing all 53 minutes, and Harden contributed 22 points, nine assists and nine rebounds despite clearly being bothered by right hamstring tightness.
Durant’s 48 points are the most ever in a Game 7, and his off-balance, 24-foot jumper with one second left sent the game to overtime.
Milwaukee will now take on the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Philadelphia 76ers series, set to be decided Sunday night.
It became clear, especially after Durant torched the Bucks for 49 points in a Game 5 performance for the ages, that the series’ fate rested on the 11-time All-Star.
Despite the heavy workload, Durant said he doesn’t really know what he is going to do after falling short of the goal.
With Irving missing the last three games of the series with an ankle injury, Durant was called upon to do most of the ball-handling and playmaking. Durant said he didn’t care about that and his sole focus was on winning.
“I wasn’t planning on losing. I will take a few days off. I don’t know,” he said. “We are going to be thinking about the next few weeks. We have to turn the page. For us, we will keep grinding and come back next year.”
So where do the Nets go from here?
The Nets will have Durant, Harden and Irving at their disposal for the 2021-22 season, and management will try to put pieces around them in order move further in the playoffs.
As the book closes on another betting favorite bounced out of the playoffs, the Nets and Nash know that every other team in the league will use their resources to get better this offseason.
“We try to improve and get better, that’s all you can ask. If Kyrie and me are healthy, it’s a different conversation,” Harden said. “But we can’t talk about that because that wasn’t the case.”
Follow Scooby Axson on Twitter @ScoobAxson.