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The Celtics? The Celtics have a famous name. They have a famous uniform. They have the winking leprechaun, and the parquet floor. The Celtics have an awfully crowded ceiling at TD Garden — lots of retired numbers, lots of championship banners. But the Celtics aren’t half as good as the Nets.
The Bucks? The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that’s a nice asset. They have a fine coach in Mike Budenholzer. They have some unfinished business, having entered the playoffs the past few years prohibitive favorites in the East and getting taken out early. But the Bucks aren’t as good as the Nets; they will also have their hands full with the Heat.
The Sixers? Look, the Sixers are the No. 1 seed in the East. They have Joel Embiid, either 1 or 1A in this year’s MVP race, and Ben Simmons, who’s as much fun to watch as any player in the NBA. They have Doc Rivers, who is both terrific and on a redemptive mission of his own. But the Sixers aren’t the Nets on both teams’ best day. They just aren’t.
And the crowded pile of pretenders out west? We’ll worry about them later.
No. The Nets’ biggest impediment to fulfilling their manifest basketball destiny is the Nets. The Nets are the only team that matches up with the Nets, and the Nets are, in truth, the only team that can interrupt what ought to be a two-month joyride to Borough Hall and a crowning parade, New York’s first basketball title since the Nets ruled Hempstead Turnpike in 1976.
If the Nets are, indeed, the league’s new Objects of Scorn, then there have already been plenty of folks figuring out plenty of ways this can go sideways. There are already plenty of hopeful sentences that begin this way: “If Kemba can …” or, “If Giannis can …” or, “If Doc can …” And those sentences are all adorable.
And perfectly useless.
You want to root against the Nets?
Then you have to root for the Nets.
Because only the Nets will stop the Nets. There are some secondary and tertiary sources of self-sabotage available — they do not play defense well, at all, even when at full strength; they are still led by a neophyte coach; they still have limited reps as a full unit. But there is the one 8,000-pound purple elephant that is the most obvious sentry between now and a July jubilee down by the Promenade:
The Nets are tired of hearing about this, and you would be, too, if your kryptonite was as obvious as theirs. But the fact is the Nets’ Achilles’ heel begins with Kevin Durant’s Achilles tendon, and then it sprouts out in dozens of directions. The Nets’ injury transactions since the start of the season is 71 lines long (by comparison, the Knicks’ is 50). It incorporates everyone. It includes everything. It reads like a who’s-who and a what’s-what of sprains and strains and bruises and bumps.
… Jeff Green (shoulder) … Kevin Durant (hamstring) … Nicolas Claxton (shoulder) … Kyrie Irving (back) … Blake Griffin (concussion protocol) … James Harden (thigh) … Kyrie Irving (finger) … Nicolas Claxton (safety protocol) … Blake Griffin (injury management) … Kevin Durant (injury recovery) … Kyrie Irving (injury recovery) … Landry Shamet (ankle) … James Harden (neck) … Blake Griffin (rest) …
And look: Part of the Nets’ narrative is that in spite of all this — and it really does go on a lot longer than this — they still finished with the No. 2 seed, pushed Philadelphia for No. 1, and only reinforced how loaded they are by winning even when two-thirds (or more) of the Big 3 missed games.
But there are no more Tuesday gimmes against Orlando and Cleveland. There are no more games for (rest) or (injury recovery) or (load management). If you get hurt, if you skip a few games, it isn’t just the laws of depth that you’re tempting, but the rules of fate and logic. The idea has always been: Rest the guys when you can all across the winter so they’ll be ready for the push in spring and summer.
Maybe that’s how this will go.
But as we’ve already seen from the play-in games: These games are just different, more intense, fiercer, more furious. Both Durant and Irving know firsthand the postseason pace can be ruinous and unforgiving; both might have at least one more ring apiece but for playoff-shattering injuries.
Maybe that won’t happen. And sure, maybe the Nets are so loaded it won’t matter even if it does. But if you’re looking for a foe that will stop this merry basketball parade, that’s where you have to look. Not Boston. Not Milwaukee or Miami. Not Philly. The Nets’ nemesis, if it exists at all, is closer to home than that. Much closer.
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