I watched Game 7 of the infamous Brooklyn Nets-Milwaukee Bucks 2021 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series from a cabin just outside of Nowhere, Vermont. It was the day before the start of my last summer working as a camp counselor in, of course, Maine, and my parents were nice enough to drive me up there. We took a pitstop on the way, staying the night near the VT-NH border to watch the most important game the Nets had played in two decades.
The last half-hour before tip-off was agonizing. I decided to go for a walk, pacing around the same group of trees unable to decide on listening to hype music or songs that would calm my nerves. The next three hours were a blur, adrenaline pumping too high to really retain anything. Blake Griffin put up 17/11/3 on 7-12 shooting — I don’t think I remember a single one of his baskets.
But maybe, in your final moments, life really does flash before your eyes. I remember every second of that walk; the last song I listened to was Curren$y’s Offloading, the first time I experienced the relief of not caring if my parents smelled the joint I had just smoked on me because hey, it was Game freaking Seven.
We’re two-and-a-half years (and four days) past the demarcation point of the Clean Sweep Era, even if we didn’t know it after that loss. I don’t need to tell you it feels like eons ago, whether you measure time by personal landmarks, who’s on the Nets roster, or most likely, some combination of the two.
My walk coincided with the last time Joe Harris had a chance to be the first Brooklyn Net to have his jersey hanging in Barclays Center’s rafters. The missed shots against Milwaukee, including that wide-open three on the left wing in overtime that’s burned into our memories, helped start a chain reaction that ultimately rendered Joe’s jersey retirement an impossibility.
They were, really, the only events in there that were in his control. By the end of his time in Brooklyn, which ended with a July trade to the Detroit Pistons, he was a stranger in the house he helped build. Harris had little to do with the final days of the Clean Sweep Era, both on and off the court, and an ankle injury abruptly ended his prime as one of the NBA’s very-best shooters.
Many Nets fans begged the one-time hero to take a seat on the bench, as Harris had lost some of the goodwill he would’ve kept if his shots in 2021 ripped nylon.
None of that is enough to revise the history that tells us Joe E. Buckets seemed headed for franchise-legend status, regardless of specific jersey-retiring politics. There is no need to rehash the specifics of his story, scooped up by Brooklyn after the Orlando Magic traded for and subsequently waived him in the middle of the 2016 season. Always a solid shooter, Harris developed the ability to fly off screens and hit shots, bulked up to become a trustworthy defender, and even added a reliable off-the-dribble game good enough to punish over-aggressive closeouts.
All that made him the perfect fit next to the offensive supernovas the Nets had suddenly acquired in bulk, and for everything that went wrong with the franchise afterwards, there’s a reason the on-court is never re-litigated:
Zach Lowe says Celtics staff “walked out of Game 4 [in 2021] being like, ‘If [the Nets] just don’t screw it up, we are all so royally-you-know-what-ed…” pic.twitter.com/i0XNWcN8BW— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 18, 2023
Harris doesn’t deserve the fate he suffered, as he returns to the Barclays Center as a 32-year-old wing that feels older than that, a member of a team with the inside track to become the worst outfit in NBA history.
Jacque Vaughn, however, wasn’t concerned about any of that in his pregame comments, his face lighting up when Harris’ name was mentioned.
Yeah, I can’t wait to see his [tribute] video tonight. Definitely well deserved. I was here when Joe was in his first year, so I’ve had a lot of rides with him, whether that was in the bubble, whether that was winning 19 games, whether that was making the playoffs. Incredible human being, ultimate teammate, he sacrificed his game, his body, everything that goes along with being a teammate. So, epitome of a great teammate.
There is no debating any of that, other than Vaughn shorting the 2016-’17 team by one win. (They went 20-62 in Kenny Atkinson’s first season at the helm.) Harris was a founding father of respectable Brooklyn basketball; he worked to bring the Nets from the basement to the ground-floor, and was rewarded with along a brief ride to the penthouse.
Though Harris is certainly not blameless, he deserved more signature playoff moments, the type that will land a guy like Kevon Looney a spot in Golden State Warriors lore. At least Lumber Joe got to torch the Boston Celtics in round one of 2021, somewhat of a full-circle moment against the franchise that seemingly crippled the Nets — along with Billy King — before Harris and the rest of the Kenny Atkinson crew saved them:
Despite the bitterness some fans still hold toward the seven-year Net for the end of his tenure, that’s little more than a footnote. The fans and Harris each have bigger fish to fry.
As Vaughn said, Joe Harris will get a tribute video and Saturday night, and a strong round of applause from the crowd. In another universe, he would’ve gotten a whole lot more than that.