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IT’S PERSONAL: This is worse, but only sometimes

On expectations, and ultimate joys

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It feels disingenuous to use the phrase “new-look Nets” yet again, to describe, like, the tenth look for Brooklyn over the past three-or-so years. The only new look for this franchise would be a consistent one.

In any case, I skipped out on watching this almost-whole version of the Brooklyn Nets notch their first win in their first game, a 116-105 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night. (Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are likelier to debut on Saturday.)

The ever-capable Matt Brooks was there to cover the game, so I opted to head to a friend’s house, hopefully taking the Nets off my mind for a few hours. I had written a farewell to Kyrie Irving, releasing all that built up during his nearly four years in Brooklyn, so much so that it works as a farewell to that entire era of Nets basketball. That era officially ended a day later, when the Nets shipped Kevin Durant to Phoenix. Subconsciously, we all knew what was coming. I’m just glad the dagger went in and out of our hearts at the snap of a finger.

But I shouldn’t have been so hopeful on Thursday. This terminal condition that we share stipulated I check the score on my phone, that I scroll through highlights on social media, that I was hardly less separated from the Nets than if I had sat down and watched the TNT broadcast. In this case, the forced exposure was healthy. They won a fun game, and I’m looking forward to watching the film on Friday. Not so long ago, this was the norm.

It’s not ideal, though. After wholly dismissing the Clean Sweep era, I don’t have it in me to wax too poetic about Kevin Durant. It’s just...he's not a Net anymore. You were there, you watched just like I did, and you didn’t need stats from Cleaning the Glass or even re-watches of Brooklyn games to understand KD’s impact, to understand that he was the greatest Net anybody ever saw touch a basketball.

It was astounding when he missed a semi-open shot. It’s a different experience than watching Steph Curry, the undisputed greatest shooter ever, make 45% of his usually-difficult three-point attempts. Most of his misses aren’t shocking. Durant is touching SIXTY PERCENT on mid-range jumpers, and he’s creating all of them against defenders of every shape and size. They go in every time, and it’s inevitable. At least with Steph Curry, there's often a moment during a Golden State possession where the opponent botches an assignment, getting confused on one of the umpteen screens he runs around. There’s a point at which you can spot something the defense shouldn’t have done, no matter how unfair of an ask it is. Watching Kevin Durant is like watching a conveyor belt turn scrap metal into a hanger.

And yet, losing KD isn’t quite why this sucks, or at least the whole reason. It’s 2023, you can and should watch your favorite player perform magic whenever you so choose. If nothing else, his Phoenix Suns will be an entertaining watch.

Do you remember where you were when Durant hit this shot?

I was outdoors, at some picnic situation my best friend had convinced me to come to. I spent that gathering glued to my laptop, adding side comments to conversation during free-throws or commercials that broke up the action of Bucks-Nets, Game 3. By the fourth quarter, most people had cleared out, and I had pulled my buddy to the side to sweat out the end of regulation with me.

Durant hits that pull-up three. 83-80, Brooklyn, about a minute to go. I calmly set my laptop down and take off sprinting through the grass, jumping up and down, squealing. I stop for a moment on my way back and allow myself, for the first time, to bask in a wave of “the Nets are going to the Finals” giddiness. (I did not view either the 76ers or Hawks as serious threats in 2021, more-so road bumps.)

I wish I didn’t allow myself to slip. Three points with over 60 seconds to go and I’m celebrating, had I never watched basketball before?

The next moment of joy was Game 5 of that series, a much less comfortable situation but a much more euphoric ending:

I stayed up all night scouring the Internet for every bit of Durant praise there was. One of the game’s undisputed giants, a hall-of-famer who I can hardly remember the NBA without, just turned in his magnum opus, and as a Net to boot. His performance in that Game 5 was every bit the stereotypical carry-job you could have asked for from a hero; he saved the burning city himself. Those that exist solely to call Kevin Durant a snake and a cupcake are dying out, but there are still a few of them, and there were more two years ago. Even if it was just for one night, they had to bow down.

“I think I just blacked out for three hours, and I’m not even sure what happened. But Kevin Durant played one of the greatest games a human being has ever played, in any sport, ever.” - Zach Lowe. June 15, 2021

Now, my personal favorite moment from the Clean Sweep era will always be Game 4 against the Boston Celtics in 2021:

104 points! They combined for 104 points, and the only reason it wasn’t more is because James Harden was busy handing out 18 assists. I loved that it was against the Celtics, of course, but more-so I loved that they turned a supposedly serious contest into a laugher on an opponent’s home floor.

What do all of those moments have in common now, other than Kevin Durant’s brilliance? That they are totally out of reach, even out of imagination. The possibility of reaching those highs anytime soon has been ripped away, stolen from home in the middle of the night.

The expectations of a juggernaut can only be fulfilled by accomplishing tension-filled tasks in May and June. The consistent domination of pitied opponents in the regular season is fun, but that gets old after a while. The only reason I still cling to those moments from the Clean Sweep era - Harden + Kyrie torching Sacramento, the whole squad laying waste to Golden State on ESPN while inventing ‘Bruce Brown the roller’ - is because we didn’t even get more than a couple of those.

But those, while fun, don’t touch the unbridled bliss of the bigger moments, like Kevin Durant going God-mode to win just a single battle in a war they’d lose. Even in the decisive Game 7, you still remember how it felt when KD hit that game-tying shot. Yeah, his toe was on the line, but he MADE IT. OH MY GOD.

That is the peak, the “why” of investing so much damn time and energy on a sports team that you can't help win games. Some fans never get to experience it; hell, Nets fans have climbed pretty far up and still haven’t seen the mountaintop. But up there, every inch closer is one you never forget.

It sounds like everybody had a ball watching Joe Harris hit a bunch of threes and Dorian Finney-Smith dunk all over the Chicago Bulls. Good! In the macro, sure, it may be depressing that that’s the new standard, rather than chasing championships. But, even in more successful pursuits than the ones Brooklyn has witnessed over the last three seasons, that can be miserable too.

You wait all season, a long season at that, for the playoffs. Players get restless, expectations are immense. The film is fine, but stagnant after a while - you’re just waiting to see what will matter and what won’t in a playoff series. You build for 16 wins in the spring, and while getting those 16 wins provides the ultimate “why” of fandom...well, the rest of it mostly bores.

You know what doesn’t bore? Seeing just how much off-the-dribble juice Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson can add to their games. Looking for Cam Thomas to progress in his ability to react to getting doubled off the pick-and-roll. The nights when he catches a heater and ends up with 34. Remember how awesome it was, despite everything swirling around in Brooklyn’s atmosphere, to watch Thomas score 134 points over three games. Humans are nothing if not malleable.

Sure, the highs can only be so high, and it gets old after a while. Do you know why everybody has the fondest memories of that 2018-19 season? Because it ended. After two more first-round exits, it would have been nothing but “Spencer Dinwiddie wants a bigger role,” and “Caris LeVert feels underpaid.” No shade to those two, but that’s just how it goes.

Luckily, this Nets team has a long way to go before things get stale, particularly considering what they’re following up, which was a drag 95% of the time.

It does hurt that this group, though, will never be able to match that other five percent, even if the day-to-day is a source of enjoyment Nets fans are quite familiar with. That part is nice. It’s the highs that have been taken away, highs that now only exist in a time and space we can't conceptualize. Who knows what they’ll look like, who knows when Nets fans may get to experience them again. Potentially watching Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns enjoy them this spring will sting, as will the Dallas’ Mavericks possible success with Kyrie Irving.

The good news? You don’t have to think about that...most of the time.

I can handle whatever I stumble upon

I don’t even notice she’s gone

Most of the time