The Brooklyn Nets almost had it.
"It," in this case, being a critical rallying point. A signature win that could have taken a reeling franchise's dismal season and pointed it in a new, more hopeful direction.
Brooklyn roared back from a seemingly insurmountable 27-point deficit against the Los Angeles Lakers, fighting with every ounce of strength to avoid yet another disappointing loss. For a while there, it looked like the Nets were going to do it.
The result was a 99-94 loss that ensured Brooklyn's high-velocity tailspin would only accelerate.
You've heard the term "seize the moment." Well, the Nets seized up, allowing the moment that could have saved their season to pass them by.
Brooklyn started slowly, falling behind by 16 in the game's first 12 minutes as neither Garnett nor Pierce made a field goal in the first period. From there, things only got worse.
Jordan Farmar caught fire to start the second, drilling three-pointers on L.A.'s first three possessions of the period. He added a fourth triple at the 8:30 mark that inflated the Lakers' lead to a whopping 27 points. All hope appeared lost.
But then something strange happened: Brooklyn showed signs of life. Where there had been only darkness, a tiny spark ignited.
Alan Anderson hit a pair of threes, Joe Johnson followed with one of his own and Andray Blatche worked his way to the foul line four times in less than 90 seconds. The Nets were fighting. Notably, though, Garnett and Pierce had nothing to do with the rally.
As the Nets headed into halftime with a much more manageable 14-point deficit, KG and Pierce had just a single bucket between them.
Pierce finally got involved in the third quarter, scoring 10 points to help Brooklyn cut the Lakers' advantage to just nine points at the end of the period.
Mirza Teletovic (Yes, that Mirza Teletovic) went bonkers to start the final quarter, hitting two long-range bombs in the first three minutes as a stunned Lakers outfit struggled to hang onto their lead. Frankly, it was surreal.
It didn't seem possible that a Nets team that had shown so little heart throughout the year was suddenly getting inspired performances from some of their most most unproductive players. I mean, Teletovic came into the game having made just 29 percent of his field goals on the season.
Suddenly, he was leading the charge.
Yeah, it was weird.
The crowd started to get restless. Only this time, the assembled fans were filled with excited nerves, not the anxious discomfort they'd dealt with all season. During the final six minutes, there was a palpable tension.
Teletovic remained unconscious, knocking down four more foul shots and another triple that cut L.A.'s lead to a single point. The Barclays Center was rocking. When he hit yet another free throw to tie the game at 92-92 with 3:57 remaining, the place practically erupted.
Brooklyn had come all the way back.
If we pretend the game ended here, with the Nets and Lakers tied, we'd have an uplifting story. Brooklyn had clawed its way out of an impossibly deep hole, using every resource and little-used bench asset at its disposal to do so.
Sure, coming back from a huge deficit against a team that nobody expects to make the playoffs is hardly cause for champagne in the locker room and a parade outside Barclays, but this is a Nets team that desperately needs some good vibes.
And a massive comeback, even against less-than-stellar competition, had definitely created some.
Garnett has been talking for weeks about how the Nets need to just shut up and play.
On Nov. 20, he told Roderick Boone of Newsday: "We are talking to each other and are keeping each other upbeat and all that. But at some point, it's just talk, and then you have to come in and actually do some of the things that we are talking about as a team."
For a couple of quarters, the Nets had done just that. They quit feeling sorry for themselves, knuckled up and played.
If Brooklyn could have made one final push, turning that tie into a lead, who knows what might have happened in the coming weeks. Maybe Jason Kidd would have gained enough confidence to do more than sit on the sidelines staring blankly into space.
Maybe Garnett and Pierce's veteran rhetoric in the locker room would have started to resonate a big more after some tangible success on the court.
Maybe Brooklyn could have saved its season.
The Lakers went up by two on a Wesley Johnson layup with 1:32 remaining. After that, Brooklyn had plenty of chances to take back control. But Garnett missed a wide-open 17-footer from his favorite spot at the top of the key.
And then, after the Lakers had taken a 97-94 lead, they completely forgot about Pierce with just two seconds left. The 15-year veteran missed a totally uncontested triple with two seconds remaining that would have tied the game. It was his 13th miss of the night, an appropriately unlucky number for a player—and a team—that hasn't caught a single break all year.
Those final bricks by Garnett and Pierce carried profound symbolic importance. On the surface, they were just disappointing misses. But they also point to the growing problem of having leaders in Brooklyn who can't back up their talk with action.
For some longtime fans, the emotions accompanying Pierce and Garnett's failure were difficult to bear.
For others, they were somehow pleasant.
I guess depending on your perspective, watching heroes fade into obscurity can be either painful or satisfying.
Unfortunately for the Nets, what comes next will be a lot like what's come before.
There'll be more slumped shoulders, more clenched teeth and more thousand-yard stares. Expect more questions from the media about how to turn things around. Expect there to be no good answers.
Of course, there will also be some new questions.
For example, I'm sure somebody's going to want to know how Kidd feels about becoming the first head coach in NBA history to be fined for ordering one of his own players to deliberately run into him so he could spill his drink in an attempt to ice Jodie Meeks at the foul line.
The league office is going to be all over that bush-league move. On the bright side, Kidd actually did something. I guess that's a positive sign.
Oddities aside, the Nets are sure to be devastated by their missed opportunity. For a moment, they looked like they were ready to be the authors of a new chapter in their season. They had worked hard, fought tooth and nail, all in an effort that ultimately came up short.
That's going to make this defeat hurt even more.
The Nets gave it everything they had, sensing the pivotal stakes. But their all wasn't enough, so now a season that could very easily have turned around will stay on the same dismal course.
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