LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — All the Brooklyn Nets were missing Tuesday were their leaders in salary, points, points per game, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers. If that wasn’t enough, the feel-good story of Jamal Crawford’s return to the NBA lasted for about six minutes.
And they won.
The severely undermanned Nets beat Milwaukee 119-116 on Tuesday, temporarily delaying what will be the Bucks’ clinching of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bucks didn’t use Brook Lopez or Wesley Matthews at all, plus didn’t play All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton after halftime, though it should be noted that the Nets were winning at intermission anyway.
Who the Bucks played or didn’t play wasn’t all that relevant to the Nets. The walls of the temporary locker rooms at the Visa Athletic Center are paper thin and don’t hold sound, but the Nets probably didn’t mind the fact that anyone within 100 feet could have heard their raucous postgame celebration.
“Very big for us, for our confidence,” Brooklyn’s Garrett Temple said.
Depending on which sports book you looked at, the Nets were either 18.5- or 19-point underdogs in this game, which was the biggest margin of the season in the NBA.
The reasons were obvious: The Bucks have the best record in the NBA, while the Nets are under .500, gave Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert — their best three players in the bubble — the day off for various reasons and trotted out a starting lineup on Tuesday that nobody had ever seen before.
This was Brooklyn’s starting five: Temple, Tyler Johnson, Lance Thomas, Rodions Kurucs and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. The Nets are paying them, combined, about $7 million this season — or roughly 12 times less than what the Bucks’ starters are making.
Before Tuesday, that Nets lineup had played zero seconds together this season. None.
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn has been telling his team about momentum, reminding them that fortunes can sometimes turn around quickly. There’s no lamenting about the list of players who aren’t here — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and more. He’s telling the Nets to work with what they have.
“We’ll try to keep things in perspective,” Vaughn said. “Same conversation we had after our first scrimmage here … each day, we’ll take it, process it, see what happens and reload and do it again. We won’t complicate this thing.”
Well, that’s not entirely true.
The Nets have a 7 1/2-game lead over Washington for the No. 8 spot in the East, which means they’ve got a serious cushion in the race to avoid a play-in series; the Wizards would have to be within four games of eighth to force that.
If Brooklyn doesn’t catch Orlando, that means the Nets know they’ll be seeing the Bucks again — this time in the first round of the playoffs. So, Vaughn unleashed a little wrinkle for Milwaukee to think about, a 3-2 zone that was effective at times Tuesday.
“This is a great game for us to roll it out and see what it yielded,” Vaughn said. “Some success. Gives us some film to watch, gives me something to do.”
Crawford gave the Nets a lift when he checked in for his debut, but the sight of him hobbling to the sideline after six minutes with a strained left hamstring was tough. The Nets didn’t break then, nor did they break when a double-digit lead became a deficit in the fourth quarter.
If Durant not playing at all, Irving getting hurt again, the early March firing of coach Kenny Atkinson, a shutdown because of a pandemic, losing some players to the coronavirus, having now 24 players appear in games this season and needing to live for a few weeks in a bubble at Walt Disney World didn’t get the Nets to quit, then probably nothing will.
They won’t be favored against anybody in the playoffs. They might be hard-pressed to win a single postseason game. And nobody knows who’ll be coaching Durant, Irving and whomever else is there next season.
But for one day, there was a reason to be happy.
“We’ll take it,” Vaughn said.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press and is inside the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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