If the Nets win out, they will finish seventh.
It’s the silver lining, the light at the end of a dark tunnel for a Nets team that’s sustained blow after blow in a season littered with championship aspirations. For all their struggles, all their injuries, all their troubles and misfortunes, the Nets are still in control of their own fate. They can still hold home-court advantage in next Tuesday’s play-in tournament game. They can still avoid a win-or-go-home scenario if they string together enough wins.
Tuesday’s win over the Houston Rockets, plus losses by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets, vaulted the Nets up the standings from 10th to 8th place. As long as the Nets handle business and win their remaining three games, it doesn’t matter what happens elsewhere. They hold the tiebreakers over both the Hawks and Cavaliers and are a full game ahead of the Hornets. If the Nets win out, they will give themselves the best possible chance at securing the East’s seventh seed.
“I think it would be great. It would be great to be seventh. Better than eighth. Eighth better than ninth,” head coach Steve Nash said. “At the same time, I think there’s a balance to be struck here. We want to win all the games, we want to finish seventh, we want to have the play-in at home and an opportunity to go in on one game. Of course, all four teams in the play-in want to do that. We’ve also got to balance that with our growth, with all the injuries, making sure guys can get through in one piece as possible and so we’re trying to balance a few things here.”
If the Nets are going to do that, it won’t be easy. After all, there’s nothing more the Knicks would love to do than wreck the Nets’ odds at finishing in seventh, and a loss, plus wins for the competition would send the Nets directly to 10th, which is win-or-go-home territory.
That’s the wrinkle in play now in Year 2 of the NBA’s play-in tournament. At the end of the season, the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference will play each other to determine the seventh seed in the playoff picture. The loser of that No. 7 vs. 8 game will play the winner of the No. 9 vs. 10 game.’ The loser of the 9 vs. 10 game will go to Cancun, as will the loser of the consolation game between the loser of 7 vs. 8 and the winner of 9 vs. 10.
The Nets don’t want to be 9th or 10th, where they were before Tuesday’s win. And where they’ll end up if they falter on the second leg of a back-to-back on Wednesday, against their crosstown rivals who have long been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but would love nothing more than to spoil the Nets’ party.
“It’s a big game,” Knicks star RJ Barrett said on Tuesday. “I know I’m excited. I know the team is fired up.”
But this is what it’s going to take, a win against a still tough-to-beat Knicks team, even if they’re at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The Nets have struggled against teams that profile like the Knicks — young, athletic teams that scrap and run and try to turn you over.
The Nets can’t help but think about seeding. It’s the only thing keeping them alive in their hunt for a championship.
“It puts you in a position where you’ve got to raise your game up to the challenge, and we’ve faced teams where we’ve been on the other side of that losing,” said Kyrie Irving. “So, we’d rather be in the driver’s seat and sit comfortably and be able to control our own destiny, and I think that’s where we’re where we’re most comfortable.”
Funny enough, Wednesday’s decisive rivalry game will also be the first time both Irving and Kevin Durant step foot on the Madison Square Garden floors as teammates since the two decided to join forces in Brooklyn three summers ago. Durant missed the entire first season in Brooklyn, and Year 2 was wrecked by COVID-19. Irving missed all games in New York City this season until Mayor Adams created a vaccine exemption for pro athletes.
“You know how that series goes between us and the New York Knicks,” said Irving. “And it’s been that way since I’ve been a fan of the Nets since I was a kid. So it’s gonna be action packed. … It’ll be an exciting environment where you know what to expect. It’s the Mecca. So what better way to close out your season, the final few games, playing in one of the most historic arenas in the world.
“But that aside, we’ve just got to bring it. And looking forward to it. Looking forward to back and forth action. And I know the Knicks will be ready, so we’ve just got to be prepared. It’s about us.”
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