Coming into the final weekend of the regular season, none of the handful of decidedly un-great teams racing for the Eastern Conference’s last few playoff spots—the Pistons, Magic, Nets, Heat, and Hornets—had a truly easy route to the postseason. They’d all have to beat somebody to get through. The toughest challenge just happened to belong to the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets came into the weekend tied for seventh but just a game ahead of ninth; to stay afloat, they’d have to weather a Saturday-Sunday back-to-back, a visit to the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks and then a second road game, against the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers, less than 24 hours later. Everything sucks now; the worst scenario tends to happen; my friends, I thought the Nets were fucked.
It was going to be a real tragedy. The Nets, without a ton of fanfare, have been one of the most fun teams and most pleasant surprises in the NBA this season, a janky and ingeniously arranged collection of ballsy weirdos, reclamation projects, and angular late-draft mutants that I’m struggling like hell to describe without defaulting to the word “motley.” A couple years from now, if all goes well, the idea of a D’Angelo Russell-led team merely having made the playoffs will seem like a disappointment, but as recently as November, the idea of a D’Angelo Russell-led team, period, seemed faintly ludicrous—and he’s only, what, the third- or fourth-coolest surprise on this deeply cool roster. The Nets are delightful, is what I’m getting at, and they spent years dragging themselves the extremely hard way out of the depths of mismanagement hell to arrive at delightfulness, and they belong in the playoffs, as much for the playoffs’ sake as for theirs.
That’s the Nets, perhaps aided a bit by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s calf, sweeping that tough weekend back-to-back and clinching their first playoff trip in four years. They’re in.
Saturday night’s game was the tougher of the two: Even without the likely MVP, who sat out to rest a sore leg, the Bucks surged furiously from the end of the third quarter to the end of regulation, wiping away a 15-point deficit in front of a roaring home crowd. The Nets counterpunched just enough to outlast Milwaukee’s momentum; more bonkers, more entertaining and illuminating, by far, than any of the individual clutch buckets that did the job is a list of the guys who made them.
So there’s Spencer Dinwiddie, signed away from Chicago’s D-League affiliate in 2016 after the shitty Bulls waived him twice in one offseason, using a sly hesitation dribble to slip past Sterling Brown and Brook Lopez for a righty layup, to snap an 11-0 Milwaukee run that had tied the game at 113:
And there’s Russell, the fallen lottery pick taken off the Lakers’ hands as trade ballast for Timofey Mozgov’s nightmare contract, splashing in a high-arcing pull-up three over Brook Lopez to break a 117-all deadlock:
There’s Caris LeVert, who gruesomely dislocated his right foot earlier this very season (I don’t even know which part of that to italicize for emphasis: he dislocated his entire damn foot, and it happened earlier this same freaking season), stutter- and side-stepping his characteristically herky-jerky way into a big three-pointer a couple minutes later, after the Bucks took a 121-120 lead:
And there’s Jared goddamn Dudley, who seemed for all the world to have aged out of a place in an NBA rotation before his final season at Boston College, and whose final season at Boston College was 12 motherfucking years ago, and who has been the oldest, slowest, most inexplicable dude on seemingly half the league’s teams since then, sneaking unnoticed behind the weak side of Milwaukee’s defense (maybe, like me, they forgot he was in the league half a decade ago?) for an up-and-under bucket to snatch the lead back with 3:22 left to play:
There’s Joe Harris, a former second-rounder who spent the back half of the 2016 season out of work before the Nets signed him that summer, sauntering through the choppy disorder after a long offensive rebound to sink one last audacious pull-up three, breaking the game’s final tie at 128:
And there was Russell, dropping in a slick driving lefty layup with just less than a minute left to play, to ice it. I’ve made enough GIFs! Click on the video or use your damn imagination!
The win didn’t seal their playoff campaign by itself, but a loss sure as hell would have put it in grave danger. Coach Kenny Atkinson knew what it meant; when asked afterward how he’d prepare for the next day’s Pacers game, he said he’d celebrate this one, first.
From the Post:
“I’ll prepare by having a glass of wine,” said Atkinson, who is partial to a good red. “Sometimes, you have to celebrate. You celebrate and then get my workout in, and we’ll be ready to prepare [for the Pacers].”
They turned out not to need any of that ballsy fourth-quarter shot-making on Sunday, seizing an early lead and never letting up. The win, combined with Miami’s and Detroit’s losses, clinched the Nets either the sixth or seventh seed in the East. If they knock off the Heat on Wednesday night, in what now looks all but certain to be Dwyane Wade’s final NBA game, they’ll finish sixth in the East and will meet the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
This seems like a fun moment to note that the Nets have not exercised a draft pick higher than 22nd overall since 2010. (In fact, what the hell, let’s just throw this out there to infuriate the Process guys: Even if Antetokounmpo had played on Saturday, neither the Nets’ nor the Bucks’ rotation would have included even one single player taken by that team with a top-10 pick. I find that very fun.)
They’d be extreme underdogs against the Sixers, if it happens; they’d be extreme underdogs if they slip to seventh and catch the second-seeded Raptors, too. All of this has seemed like an upset, a long series of microcosmic upsets forming one macrocosmic upset, mounted by a roster of upsets. That’ll only go so far; they will not win the 2019 NBA Finals. But they’ll play for another couple of weeks, at least, and that’s cool.