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Steve Nash admitted it. He’d gotten swayed. He’d gotten seduced. Things went so well for the Nets in their first playoff series, a dominant win in five games over the Celtics. Everyone emerged from that series upright, save for Jeff Green. Everyone contributed.
Everyone assumed when the Nets and their players got a couple of games together they would begin to hum like a Ferrari engine. We’d started to hear that hum.
Nash heard the hum.
Then he heard the scream.
The voice belonged to James Harden. So did the hamstring that began to bark at him just 43 seconds into the Nets’ opening game against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals at Barclays Center on Saturday night.
Yes, Nash admitted. He’d actually allowed himself, in a moment of weakness, to think the Nets might just figure out a way to emerge from these playoffs without a moment like this, and without the corresponding absence.
“I was there prior to last night,” Nash said of reaching that fine but fleeting moment of Zen. “But that’s not our reality and we have to accept it and enjoy the opportunity we have regardless of the adversity.”
Now, deep breath: the Nets wound up fine Saturday night. They wound up better than fine, in fact. They shrugged off the initial shock to the system. They got terrific performances by the remaining two-thirds of the Big 3 (29 points, 10 rebounds for Kevin Durant, 25 points and eight assists from Kyrie Irving).
They got a throwback effort from Blake Griffin (18 points, 14 rebounds). They got the kind of intriguing minutes off the bench, 12 points in 30 minutes, that made Mike James such an intriguing late-season addition. They held the 3-point-happy Bucks to 20 percent from beyond the arc. They won going away.
Even playing the final 47 minutes and 17 seconds without their quarterback. It was the kind of effort that certainly had that Nets-hating faction of the NBA and the league’s fan base take pause.
“You never know what will happen over the course of the playoffs,” Nets guard Joe Harris said.
Some things you do know, however, and this is one: Harden is out of Game 2 Monday night. There’s no telling how many games he might miss, but we do know this isn’t a new problem for him. And hamstrings, as a rule, require rest above all else in order to get better. And it is unlikely the Bucks, or anyone else still alive in these playoffs, will go along with hitting the pause button.
So there is, as Nash calls it, their reality.
“We’ll have to play even better to win Game 2,” Nash said.
And that is another part of the reality. You can joke about how the Bucks were handed a gift Saturday night and immediately parted with it, tossing it into the East River. But now they will have time to prepare for the Nets minus Harden. And they are a team that has suffered enough of their own playoff agonies the past few years that they are well-versed on the whims and wherefores of an NBA playoff series.
The Nets played 23 games without Harden once they imported him from Houston and went 12-11 in those games. They are also a team that will never have to be checked on for wavering or quavering confidence. They believe in next-man-up as both credo and mantra. They have lived that all year.
And it is their reality now.
“Everyone has to be ready when their number’s called,” Harris said.
Said Nash: “We’re just preparing for [Monday]. That’s our focus. We understand [Harden’s injury] is a lot of guesswork, a lot of ups and downs, and hard to predict.”
The Nets don’t bother to seek anyone’s sympathy, so they will not be disappointed to discover there is very little out there. We always knew it was going to be a crazy gauntlet, keeping this fragile mix together the whole way. Nash knew it too, even if he let his guard down ever so fleetingly. Won’t make that mistake again. This is their reality.
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