NEW YORK — The Brooklyn Nets couldn’t stave off the effects of mounting injuries any longer.
After defying the odds that hamstring strains and ankle sprains had dealt, after mesmerizing and even historic performances, the Nets just didn’t have quite enough to outlast the Milwaukee Bucks in a 115-111 overtime loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Kyrie Irving sat on the sideline in street clothes on Saturday night, and although James Harden played in Game 7, he did so “on one leg,” as Nets coach Steve Nash put it, as he battled through a hamstring injury that required his right leg to be wrapped in elastic therapeutic tape.
Despite all of that, Nash thought his group had hope.
“I still thought we could win it,” Nash said. “And clearly, I think we proved tonight that we could. Game could have gone either way. You always know there’s a chance. Anything can happen. I think we just faced one too many obstacles this year. Because our guys gave everything they had.”
Injuries were unrelenting for Brooklyn this season. Both Harden and Kevin Durant each missed more than a month with hamstring strains. The Nets’ Big Three of Irving, Harden and Durant played just eight games together in the regular season before the playoffs began. But as the postseason approached, the Nets were finally at full strength.
It didn’t last long.
In Game 2 against the Boston Celtics, Jeff Green aggravated the plantar fascia in his left foot that had been plaguing him all season. He missed six games. In Game 1 of the Nets’ series against the Bucks, Harden pulled the same hamstring that caused him to miss time in the regular season, and he missed three games. In a pivotal Game 4 against the Bucks, Irving crashed awkwardly to the floor on a layup, spraining an ankle.
Despite not having his full mobility, Harden rushed back and returned in Game 5. After the Nets were eliminated, Harden said that while the team was calling his injury hamstring tightness, he had been playing through a Grade 2 hamstring strain.
“Me, personally, like, it’s frustrating,” Harden said. “Just being durable and being myself for the last so many postseasons and dealing with this particular hamstring, I’m frustrated. We did everything we could towards the end. Just frustrated, but give the Bucks credit. They fought until the end, had a hell of a series. We just came up short.”
But even with all of those ailments, the Nets pushed an almost fully healthy Milwaukee team to Game 7. Durant and Harden both played 53 minutes on Saturday night. Durant, who also played every second of Game 5 of the series, set a new Game 7 record, scoring 48 points. That included a miraculous jumper at the end of regulation to tie the score and force overtime.
A sliver of Durant’s toe was on the 3-point arc when he hit that shot.
“My big-ass foot stepped on the line,” Durant said. “I just saw a little screen-shot, how close I was to ending their season off that shot, but it wasn’t in God’s plan, and we move on.”
For the Nets, who were the title favorite for most of the season, moving on means taking a few days to digest the loss, rest and ultimately get healthy for a renewed pursuit of a championship next season. Brooklyn will need to address the contracts of several key players, including restricted free agent Bruce Brown, unrestricted free agents Green and Blake Griffin. Injured guard Spencer Dinwiddie also has a player option.
Brown said after Game 7 that he would like to play for the Nets again in the 2021-22 season. Green and Blake said that they would take a few days to recover before putting thought into the future, but both noted how much they enjoy playing in Brooklyn.
“I think we have guys that are extremely motivated, passionate about what they do, unselfish, willing to sacrifice, have a lot of character,” Nash said. “I think they will regroup and be ready to go again. It’s been a really difficult year. We got a lot thrown at us. They’ve survived it in incredible fashion. They’ll get themselves ready to go again next year.”