PHILADELPHIA — Not like this.
The Nets weren’t supposed to lose this game. Especially not like this.
Not against a 76ers team with Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey each out due to foot injuries. Not in Ben Simmons’ first official game back at the Wells Fargo Center since the blockbuster trade that sent Harden to Philly.
Tuesday night was supposed to be a gimme. In actuality, it was anything but.
What transpired in front of a sellout crowd booing Simmons every time he touched the ball encapsulated every shortcoming the Nets must overcome if they still believe they can be the last team standing at the end of the season.
For starters, forget the personnel, the X’s and O’s and the storyline of the day. This Nets team has to care. If they don’t, there’s no point in this charade.
The Nets obviously didn’t give enough you-know-whats on Tuesday.
They moved at walkthrough speed on both ends of the floor, while a short-handed and thus more hungry and — as Durant described: “free” playing — Sixers roster lapped them on both ends of the floor.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn had tears in his eyes after his team’s latest poor performance.
“Overall, [it was our] approach. It boils down to that,” Vaughn said when asked where things went left. “Just overall as a group how serious, how focused, how dedicated were we on every possession? Overall, just not what we needed. That’s the great thing about basketball, you pay for it if you don’t bring it.”
It would be one thing if this was a one-off if this was a dominant championship contender that merely fumbled a game on national TV. That kind of team could shrug Tuesday’s blunder off.
The Nets are not that. In fact, a lack of effort has been a constant for them, not only this season but every season since Durant and Irving have both been available.
This is a team that picks and chooses when it wants to play hard. A team that takes its foot off the gas altogether if the names on the opponent’s jerseys don’t carry the same cache as their own.
“It’s really a mentality of us deciding that we’re going to play defense,” Vaughn continued. “We can score the basketball. We have individual talent. We’re learning how to play together on the offensive end of the floor. We had too many mistakes at halftime. The amount of mistakes that we had at halftime was baffling for this group. Almost to the point where we had to stop the tape because we didn’t have enough time left to show them all. “
Not giving effort isn’t an option — especially not for a Nets team that’s going to play small.
This is the elephant in the room in Brooklyn: As far as Nic Claxton has come in his development into a legitimate two-way center, the pairing of him and Simmons is clunky.
And Claxton can’t hang with certain types of big men. Those types of bigs are grown men who bully their way to rebounds and points in the paint. He finished with only four rebounds in 21 minutes of play.
Yes, the Nets lost because Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and Shake Milton each hit difficult shots at timely moments. In truth, though, the Nets lost because they couldn’t stop Philly’s backup big men.
Montrezl Harrell set the tone early with six points and four rebounds in the opening minutes, but Paul Reed came off the Sixer bench and dominated the Nets in the paint.
If you haven’t heard of Reed before, that’s because he’s the third-string center and doesn’t traditionally get extended playing time because Embiid plays the majority of the minutes.
Reed finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. The Sixers outscored the Nets by a game-high 21 points in his 31 minutes on the floor.
Reed’s impact embodied the Nets’ biggest weakness, a weakness that is compounded when this team doesn’t play hard. They struggle to grab rebounds, in large part due to the lack of a dominant rebounding threat of their own. The Sixers tallied 20 offensive rebounds. They outscored the Nets, 25-7, in second-chance points.
“It’s the same s—t,” Durant said after the game. “Twenty more shots than us and seven more three-pointers. That’s the game.”
How do the Nets nip this ugly trend in the bud for good?
“Just go do it,” he continued. “Just go do what we need to do. We know: rebound, box-out, move the ball, guard-up one-on-one.”
Vaughn said he’s not afraid to go small against bigger teams, that he wants to use the mismatches created by shrinking the group on the floor to create advantages in transition.
But for this Nets team, it’s boiling down to one word.
The shots they missed — Joe Harris shot 1-of-7 from downtown, Irving shot 2-of-8, and Patty Mills shot 1-of-3 from deep — are expected to drop. Durant, who scored less than 25 points (finishing with 20) for the first time all season, is expected to dominate. The Nets are expected to be good.
Good teams, however, don’t win championships. Great teams do.
Only time will tell if this will be a good or great Nets team. They have to show they have the heart to leave it all on the floor every game in pursuit of the championship they say they want.
Tuesday night, they did not.
“I think rebounding is, you want it or I want it. And I am going to box you out or I’m not going to?” Vaughn said. “Too many times tonight we made the choice to not box out and we paid for it. They had 19 more shots than us, that’s hard to overcome.
“We have a choice and we said that in a timeout: ‘Are we going to defend? Are we not going to defend? Are we going to take each possession serious or are we not?’
“Too many times tonight we made the choice not to.”