After about their 12th run at the Celtics on Sunday, it was obvious the Brooklyn Nets weren’t going to relent in their final game of a five-game road trip.
The young Nets are exhausted after 10 days on the road, but each time the more-skilled Celtics attempted to pull away at TD Garden, Brooklyn worked a positive possession, got a defensive stop, and put more pressure on its Atlantic Division rival. The Celtics held on for a 108-105 win but nearly blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
Of course, these two franchises will forever be linked by the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Nets for about 20 first-round draft picks. It wasn’t that many, but the Nets staked their long-term future on that trade, and the ploy failed miserably.
Without those first-round picks, the Nets have scraped together young players through trades. They have put together an intriguing roster that plays vigorously for coach Kenny Atkinson.
The Nets are going to have to score big in free agency to gain more respectability, but they have enough young talent to compete soon. Despite losing Jeremy Lin to a season-ending knee injury on opening night and D’Angelo Russell missing the past 23 games following knee surgery, the Nets have proven to be a formidable opponent that often loses games such as Sunday’s.
They are good enough to push superior teams but lack the playmakers to prevail. So they try to gain momentum and fortitude off tough losses. That’s the path of a building franchise.
“I told the guys a couple of times during the game [that] it could have gotten out of hand,” Atkinson said. “And they just kept fighting. It’s a resilient group. It’s a good group. They don’t put their head down, so a good bounce back and get ready for [Monday] and big game against Orlando.”
The Nets have been getting pounded on the second night of back-to-back sets this season, and that’s the sign of an inexperienced team.
On Sunday, they responded from a 10-point first-quarter deficit to slice the Celtics’ lead to 2 by halftime.
Brooklyn briefly took the lead in the third quarter, but the Celtics went on a 14-4 run to build a 98-84 advantage with 5:59 left. Brooklyn came back with 7 consecutive points and then made two more runs.
Quincy Acy drained a 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds left to slice the deficit to 105-103. After Marcus Smart split two free throws, the Nets had a chance to tie before their inexperience showed again.
Point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, a former second-round pick who had been with the Pistons and Bulls before finding a home in Brooklyn, launched an open 30-footer that wasn’t close. Kyrie Irving grabbed the rebound and the Celtics survived.
But the Nets are leaving the impression that they won’t be lottery-bound for much longer.
Celtics fans who don’t want to see the Cavaliers get a high lottery pick from the Nets’ first-rounder will be happy to know that Russell, Brooklyn’s leading scorer, is due back in January, and recently acquired center Jahlil Okafor is working himself back into basketball shape.
Essentially, the Nets are competing with a bunch of journeymen, late first-round picks, and youngsters such as rookie big man Jarrett Allen.
“We’re definitely competing,” swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “I feel like the effort is there. It’s about your focus. It’s your preparation before the game. It’s about being locked in. Sometimes you’ll have a slip up, but it’s the overall outcome you base it on, and we stayed locked in.”
Without first-round picks, Nets general manager Sean Marks had to get creative and acquire first-round talent through trades. Hollis-Jefferson was acquired a few years ago from Portland on draft night for Mason Plumlee. Caris LeVert was acquired from Indiana on draft night in 2016 for Thaddeus Young. LeVert, who is turning into a dependable scorer, tallied 16 points and seven assists Sunday.
One issue for the Nets is that they’ll have to wait another season before they can get out of salary cap jail. The $27 million owed DeMarre Carroll and Lin comes off the books after the 2018-19 season. And in order to nab Russell from the Lakers, Marks had to take on the contract of Timofey Mozgov, who lost his minutes to Allen. Mozgov’s deal runs for two more seasons.
The Nets aren’t a joke anymore. They play hard. They work hard, and they have upside. It will take a few more seasons to completely recover from their ill-fated trade with the Celtics, but there is reason for optimism.