There was no way the Nets were giving away another game.
After Spencer Dinwiddie hit the buzzer-beating shot to win it at Barclays Center on Wednesday, the Nets stared another disappointing defeat in the face, this time against the West’s 12th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, a team lacking the majority of its main talent, including injured superstar Damian Lillard.
But Kevin Durant got the help he didn’t have against Dallas: No, not the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving, but sharpshooter Seth Curry, who returned from an ankle injury to pepper the Trail Blazers with a barrage of threes to help lift the Nets to a 128-123 victory at The Clays on Friday.
“It was huge, somebody that can – he had 27,” Durant said of Curry. “Nine-for-14. Efficient from all angles on the floor. We needed that and it was good to see him back out there. Missed a few games with that ankle, but I’m glad it’s getting better and he’s able to come out here and play, and we needed all those points tonight.”
Curry scored 27 points and hit seven threes after missing three straight games with a persisting ankle injury. He helped power the Nets to a much-needed victory, as is the case every game as the Nets jostle for playoff position as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
And he helped Durant, who turned the ball over eight times under swarming defensive pressure from a young Trail Blazers team.
“Watching the last few games, the way (teams are) guarding him, sending two, three people at him no matter where he is on the floor,” Curry said. “It’s my job to step on the floor, be aggressive, knock down shots. And like I said, just try to create space for him, make the game easier for him. Just keep the game simple.
“You shouldn’t be able to run two, three guys at a player the entire game without having to pay for it. I think we did a good job of taking advantage of it tonight.”
If the Nets are going to salvage what’s left of the regular season and make a run at the sixth seed – the last playoff seed exempt from sudden-death play-in tournament territory – they’re going to have to win out.
Or get as close as they can to a perfect record to finish their remaining games of the season.
That’s because the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors are now tied for the East’s sixth seed, and the Nets are three games behind both. That means the Nets need to win three more games than both the Cavs and Raptors to tie them for sixth place in the conference.
The Nets hold the tiebreaker with a 2-1 series record against the Cavaliers, but are tied, 2-2, in the season series against the Raptors. Since both the Nets and Raptors are in the same division – and neither of them lead the Atlantic – the tiebreaker would go to the team with the best in-division record.
As of Friday night, the Nets are 9-6 against Atlantic Division opponents, and the Raptors are 7-5.
“I’m focused on our group. Improvement. That’s what frustrated me tonight,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “We need to win games, of course, but we need these moments, we need these games. Like I said, we wasted a half out there tonight. Hopefully we learn from it.”
This is important because there are only 12 more games in the regular season, and Kyrie Irving, who is unvaccinated and ineligible to play in home games until a change in New York City’s vaccine mandate, is only available to play in three games for the rest of the regular season.
Play-in tournament rules force the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference to play a game where the winner takes the seventh seed outright. The loser of that No. 7 vs. No. 8 game plays the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game.
The loser of that game is eliminated from the playoff picture altogether. The winner secures the No. 8 seed.
Which is why the Nets need to put the pedal to the metal, and why first halves like the one against Portland are particularly unacceptable for a championship contender, even if they’re shorthanded several pieces.
The Trail Blazers, who average 107 points per game on the season, took a 75-62 lead into the half. It was one of the more embarrassing displays of effort on the Nets’ part all season. They were a team that looked disinterested in protecting the rim or accepting the challenge of individual, man-on-man defense. A lack of taking care of the ball compounded the Nets’ struggles in the first and second quarters: Brooklyn turned the ball over nine times in the opening two periods.
Durant was particularly complicit in the turnover category: He scored 38 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field, but turned the ball over eight times under Portland’s swarming defensive pressure.
Curry, however, alleviated some of that pressure, especially in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, a set of few minutes Durant spent watching from the sidelines. Curry, who had it going from deep all night long, scored six of the Nets’ first eight points of the period on a pair of back-to-back threes that gave the Nets their first double-digit lead of the night.
The Trail Blazers called a timeout and never responded.
“He’s just a really good NBA player,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said of Curry. “He’s an elite shooter. Can score off the bounce. Can handle (the ball) in pick-and-roll, and he’s high IQ, so he adds a lot to our team. Obviously we needed all his points tonight and we’re just thankful he was able to play.”
The Nets trailed by as many as 18 points but outscored the Trail Blazers, 39-26, to swing the momentum back in their favor in the third quarter. The Nets need to bottle up that second-half aggression and use it to start the remainder of their regular-season games,
The competition gets a lot stiffer than the 12th seeded Trail Blazers on the rest of this regular-season journey, and the Nets need every win they can get. A loss can be the difference between making the playoffs and a second disappointing early exit in a row.
“Yeah, it’s cool to watch the standings, but I’m more so focused on playing a good brand of basketball and having some good momentum as we go into the playoffs,” said Durant. “So wherever we end up, we’ve just gotta be prepared for it, so we’ll see what happens. But that’s not something we’re focused on every day. We’ve just gotta get better.”
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