CLEVELAND — The Nets had their chances to beat the Cavaliers, which is amazing in itself.
Without Devin Harris and with the Cavaliers playing for a chance to set a franchise mark for wins and continuing their march for an NBA-tying record for victories at home, the Nets had Cleveland on the ropes.
The fans were a little quiet, seemingly shocked by what they were watching, but they were ready to make noise. Deep inside they figured LeBron James would not let them lose and that’s what we were all witnesses to in the Cavaliers’ 98-87 victory Friday night.
James didn’t have a big scoring night, finishing with 22 points, but he was uber-effective and made every single play down the stretch.
You have to credit his teammates too for making the shots, but that’s what playing with someone likes James does. It gives everyone open shots. It makes everyone better.
It all happened after the Nets erased a 13-point deficit and tied the game, 72-72. From there, James scored or assisted on 19 of the Cavaliers’ next 21 points, including 12 straight after the Nets took an 82-81 lead with 3:53 left.
That’s what great players do. They read the defense and they make plays for themselves or their teammates. When James doubled, he kicked. When he had an opening, he took it. He had two field goals, four free throws and four assists in the fourth period — three of them on threes.
This is why James is going to win the MVP award and the Cavaliers are expected to play into June. They seem to be a team of destiny this season, with 58 wins, a 33-1 mark at home and the ability to play through injuries to key players.
The Nets, on the other hand, seem destined for the Lottery, despite all of their effort. They played well, played hard, fought against the NBA’s best team for the second time in four nights. But, in the end, they didn’t make plays down the stretch.
They let the Cavaliers score on their last 10 possessions. The Nets shot 2-for-11 after they took their only lead since 5-4. It’s nothing new. Late-game execution has cost the Nets so much this season, and especially this month.
All that remains is 11 games and a glimmer of hope — a glimmer at most.
They’re not done, but they’re close. They sit in 11th place, 3½ behind Chicago, and their next game is against the Lakers. If trends continue the Nets will play them close and then lose the game late. That’s what they did in their last four games against division leaders: Boston, Orlando and Cleveland twice.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, so every game is so important,” coach Lawrence Frank said. “When you’re this deep into the season and you’re desperate to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to find a way to win some games that we’re ‘not supposed to win.’
No one’s going to make it easy because everyone’s playing for something. Cleveland and the Lakers are battling for the best record, for home-court advantage in the Finals. We just have to find a way to win some of these games.”
After the Lakers’ game, things lighten up a little with the T-Wolves and Bucks in a back-to-back. Then the Nets play the Pistons, are at Chicago, home for the Sixers, at Boston and Detroit and home for Orlando. There are several games in there that the Nets are not supposed to win, never mind the quote-unquote.
Maybe the Nets will be boosted by the return of Harris, which could happen Friday. But time is running out. All these close games show the Nets are fighting and staying competitive, which is good, but they’re losing and each defeat moves them one step closer to next season.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).
ORLANDO – The Nets don’t want to admit it, but this is getting old.
They play a good team tough, actually have a lead in the fourth quarter and can’t close out the game. Three times it’s happened this week. The Orlando Magic were the beneficiaries of it last night, winning, 105-102, against the Nets.
These games have been eerily similar. Ten total points have separated the Nets from the Hornets, Celtics and Magic.
It sounds good if you’re the Memphis Grizzlies or Oklahoma City Thunder, and it would have sounded good if this was November. But the Nets are in a playoff race, so each of these close losses hurt a little more, even if they won’t say it.
The Nets are taking the positive spin, saying this is the effort they need to play with, and if they keep doing it things will go in their favor.
Eventually, though they’re going to have to make plays late against good teams because they still have six more games against division leaders and seven more against teams with winning percentages above .600
With 20 games remaining, the Nets are 1 ½ games out of the last playoff spot. Every loss hurts, nevermind how hard the play.
In Friday night’s game, the Nets were on fire, shooting 60 percent for much of the first half, which allowed them to withstand the dominance of Dwight Howard. They were still shooting 55 percent in the fourth when they were up 97-90 with just over six minutes to play.
Those last six minutes crushed the Nets, just like the last minute crushed them against the Hornets and last 65 seconds against the Celtics. Each loss was different, different people made mistakes, different shots were missed, but there was something eerily similar about each of them.
“It stings,” Devin Harris said. “We’ve had leads going late into the games. We missed some shots. I thought tonight was a better effort execution wise. We got good shots at the basket. They just didn’t go down. We played good defense. But they made a few more plays.
“Look at the positive thing, the effort level is there, we’ve been playing great the last six games. We just haven’t been able to finish games out. If we keep getting the type of effort, it’s going to be better for us later in the season.”
In this game, the Nets missed nine of their last 10 shots, including Bobby Simmons’ go-ahead three with the score 104-102 and Vince Carter’s game-tying three just before the horn sounded.
In each of these losses, the Nets have ended the game on a deficit, a few misses in a row. Eventually, the shots may fall. Then again, maybe they won’t.
Playing better defensively will make a difference. The Magic only scored 22 in the fourth, but that doesn’t matter if the Nets only score 16. It also doesn’t matter if the Nets give up 60 in the first half.
The Nets were up 97-90 about midway through the fourth. They gave up 15 the rest of the way and scored five.
They were caught in two crucial mismatches late, with Harris on 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu, who hit back-to-back baskets after the score was tied that ultimately sent the Magic to the win.
The other night, it was a defensive lapse against Ray Allen and Paul Pierce when Allen was left open for the game-tying three.
The Nets keep giving themselves chance to win, but they also keep making mistakes. They have to correct them, especially against good teams, if they want to make the playoffs.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)