Heartbreaker doesn’t do it justice.
Kevin Durant made 62 straight free throws entering the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. His streak dated back to Oct. 26 — and it ended on the game’s final possession.
Up three, the Mavericks accidentally fouled Durant while he was in the shooting motion from behind the arc, and after making the first free throw, Durant’s second ricocheted off the front of the rim, clanked back iron then fell to the ground.
“I’ve gotta make that. That’s the game,” Durant said in an expletive-laden rant after the game. “I felt like I went through my whole routine. Damn, I should have shot it a little stronger.
“It sucks. I tell guys all the time, ‘They’re free,’ and I went up there and missed one. It sucks. Nothing much more I can say about it.”
The Mavericks held on for a 96-94 win in Dallas.
What a cold turn of events, one of the most gifted scorers in all of basketball missed a free throw that could have extended Brooklyn’s winning streak to three and sent the Nets back home on top of the world after enduring the past week-and-a-half’s drama.
To borrow a line, however, from the Book of Nash, Monday night wasn’t as much about the result as it was about the feel.
For the first time all season, the Nets feel like a quality basketball team. Even though their early-season record (4-7) might suggest otherwise.
It was a tough way for the Nets to lose: They led 25-11 in the first quarter and trailed by 11 with under four minutes left in the fourth before rallying back to make it a one-possession game with Durant in position to force overtime.
This was after the Nets came back from down 12 in the fourth quarter to beat the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday, and after they set a new record at Capital One Arena by defeating the Washington Wizards by 42 the game prior.
It’s become clear the Nets have found something during this three-game road trip. They are starting to find an identity at both ends of the floor.
“We’re trying to establish the kind of offensive and defensive team we want to be. I think we found some things on this trip that work for all of us,” said Durant, who finished with 26 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field. “Just little different things we try to figure out on the defensive side of the ball, and everybody plays extremely hard.
“So that builds confidence, especially getting wins on the road, playing good games in a row, tight games on the road. Those fourth-quarter minutes are gonna help all our players as we move forward throughout the season.”
Even more impressive is that the Nets have played their best basketball without two of their best players — make it three, because Yuta Watanabe, whose impressive play off the bench earned him a fixed spot in the Nets’ rotation, had to be helped off the floor on Monday after sustaining what the team is calling a sprained left ankle.
Watanabe couldn’t put any weight on his foot and was almost immediately ruled out for the game.
The Nets will likely miss him for some time. As for Brooklyn’s other two stars, uncertainty continues to loom.
There’s no telling when Kyrie Irving will meet the necessary benchmarks to return to play after the Nets suspended him a minimum of five games for failing to adequately apologize after posting the link to an antisemitic film on his social media channels.
It also remains unclear how much longer Ben Simmons needs before returning to All-Star form.
Simmons played in a limited capacity on Monday after missing four straight games with a swollen knee. He had fluid drained from his knee last week and returned to the rotation against the Mavericks but failed to make an impact: In 16 minutes, Simmons tallied just two points, three rebounds and two assists with two turnovers.
Interim coach Jacque Vaughn went with starting center Nic Claxton over Simmons in the closing minutes of the fourth.
“It was good to get out there and have no pain. That was the main thing for me: to have no pain, get up and down the floor, sprint, run, jump. So that felt good,” Simmons said postgame. “I’m my harshest critic, so I think [I played] terrible. There’s a place I want to get to, and I’ve gotta keep working and keep pushing myself and adapting, so I’ll get there.”
The Nets, at least outwardly, remain optimistic Simmons will return to form.
Both Vaughn and Durant said they were pleased with how Simmons pushed the pace. For what felt like the first time all season, Simmons pressed the turbo button, using a burst of speed to get by a defender, though only three shot attempts on the night suggests Simmons still has a way to go.
Yet somehow, without Irving’s production, without a fully healthy Simmons, with Watanabe exiting after just five minutes of play, and against a player many have tabbed as the runaway favorite for league MVP, the Nets still had a chance to win it at the end.
Luka Doncic finished with a game-high 36 points, and the Mavericks made life difficult for Durant with what he called a “gimmicky” defense, sending one or two extra bodies at him at different pickup points all night long.
When the double-teams came, his teammates stepped up: Cam Thomas came off the bench and scored 19, Royce O’Neale hit four threes, Joe Harris scored 14 points and Claxton finished with 10 points and 14 boards.
If only Durant could have that free throw back, then the Nets might be headed back to New York on a three-game winning streak before defending home court against the Knicks on Wednesday.
Then again, Monday night wasn’t about the result, even if it was a heartbreaking, odds-defying defeat.
Monday night was about the feel, and the Nets finally feel like the quality basketball team the names on paper would indicate — even though it took some names being removed from the rotation for this team to hit its stride.
“We settled down, we got some good looks, we executed at the end of the game,” Vaughn said. “We put ourselves — again — in position to win.”