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Nets fall apart in crunch time vs. Cavs, 5-game losing streak has team facing reality of play-in tournament


Dorian Finney-Smith said one word: “ugh.”

Joe Harris took a deep breath.

Mikal Bridges said he did not have an answer to the question.

At 2:30 into the fourth quarter of Thursday’s matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Nets felt they deserved to win.

And when the clock hit 0.7, after Donovan Mitchell rebounded his own errant free throw, and the ball miraculously found Cavs guard Isaac Okoro wide open for the game-winning three, the Nets officially found themselves in the game. play-in tournament territory. .

The Nets led by 10 with 6:19 to go in the fourth quarter and led by eight points with just over two minutes to go. They doubled under a series of turnovers that gave the Cavs an easy drive in transition, ending what the team felt was 45 minutes of good basketball.

“I felt like we deserved to win that game because we did a lot of good things over the course of the night. Now we have to let that game go and be able to come together emotionally and try to win a ball game in Miami,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said after the loss. “I tell them: many times in defeat, you learn who the hell you are. So this is an opportunity for us to learn who we are.”

Cleveland went on a 12-2 run in the final 2:13 to hand the Nets their fifth straight loss, none more debilitating than a last-second rally that came from behind and stunned the Nets in the team’s toughest loss since the exchange. deadline.

The Nets woke up Friday morning no longer holding a guaranteed playoff spot. They fell below the Miami Heat to seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a date against the Heat on the road on Saturday, followed by the second leg of a back-to-back road trip in Orlando against a Magic team that bills as a nightmare duel with five key rotation players listed 6-10 or higher.

“I felt like we should have won this game and we were in control of the game for most of 48 minutes,” said Harris, who scored his career 1,000 3-for-5 off the bench against the Cavs on Thursday. “You have a tough loss, so everyone feels that, but at the same time, we have a great game against Miami and Orlando, so the focus now shifts to that.”

* * *

It was almost predictable, the way it all played out.

That’s because the Nets’ advantage never really felt secure. Not in double digits midway through the final period, and certainly not when the Cavs began to build momentum as the clock ticked down.

And when the ball got to Okoro, with Nic Claxton’s finish delayed by a screen in the background, the entire stadium knew the Nets were going to lose.

Offense at crunch time has been the biggest area of ​​concern for an organization that traded two of the best in the business: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie have worn those shoes before, but it’s different when you’re the main attraction.

Dinwiddie, for example, played a near-perfect game through the first three quarters. He had extended a streak that now includes five double-double points-assists in his last seven games. He finished the night with 25 points and 12 assists, making nine of his 15 shots of the night, none more important than when he outran Jarrett Allen for a high-arc layup that put the Nets up, 114-110, with just 29. Seconds left.

His worst three plays, however, came when the Cavs made their run late in the game.

Dinwiddie fired a contested sidestep two over Evan Mobley’s 6-11 that bounced off the rim. Claxton grabbed the offensive rebound and gave the ball to Bridges, who handled the lane and then threw a poor pass that was intercepted by Caris LeVert, who scored on transition.

On the next possession, Dinwiddie got past Allen for an easy layup at the rim, but he parried the look and threw a pass to the corner, where only a Cavs defender was waiting.

And two possessions later, when the Cavs caught him on the perimeter, Dinwiddie threw a pass to Finney-Smith, whose momentum was taking him out of bounds.

Finney-Smith threw a one-handed back pass to Bridges, but the ball went through his hands and ended up in Mitchell’s.

He got to the line for two free throws and made the first.

He then missed the second, got his own rebound, and blocked his kickback attempt, a series of events that led to LeVert laying a cross pass to Okoro, wide open for the win.

“I couldn’t have fumbled. I could have gotten an offensive rebound on the free throw,” Finney-Smith said. “We played what 23 minutes well? But they executed at the end of the game.”

“When you get stuck, you’re supposed to have a couple guys come up to the ball. He was delayed a little bit so sometimes you try to open a guy up,” Dinwiddie added. “In hindsight, I should have called a timeout. I accept full responsibility for it. That’s not up to Doe, it’s up to me. He hadn’t been in the game, so it’s not up to him.”

* * *

Now it’s time for a reality check: The Nets are 5-10 since the NBA All-Star break and are just 8-14 since Irving’s last game as a Net before he stunned organization with a redemption request.

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They’ve lost five games in a row, none harder to swallow than the loss they felt was a win, a loss that knocked them out of safe playoff position and into sudden-death tournament territory.

Thursday’s loss to the Cavaliers is an embodiment of why the Nets should avoid the Play-In at all costs. Bridges has the tools to be special, and Dinwiddie is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career, but neither would be considered the best player on the court in an entry-level tournament game.

Mitchell has been Brooklyn’s best player two games in a row.

Brooklyn’s projected play-in tournament opponents share the same luxury: If the Nets draw the Hawks, it’s Trae Young, who hit a game-winning floater after the Nets came back from 18 down to lose in Atlanta. Against the Bulls, it’s Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan. Even the Raptors have an NBA champion and perennial All-Star in Pascal Siakam.

Vaughn is doing everything he can to keep his team from looking that far down the road. But the end of this season could mirror the end of Thursday’s loss to the Cavaliers, promising for three quarters before it all fell apart at the end.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Harris said. “But I think collectively across the board, we’re obviously aware of where we stand in the standings and the importance of every game here down the stretch.”

“At the end of the day, we’ve been to every game, so there are positives to take away from,” Dinwiddie added. “Obviously you want results. We are trying to do this at a fast pace. We are basically in training camp for this group. If you’re a seasoned team, chances are the flash will happen, bang bang, everyone just breaks it: boom, boom.

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