Here's what might be the most amazing thing about the amazing Nets: You can watch them play for a long time and never realize that they have a pretty good shot at becoming the worst team in NBA history. They just don't look that bad. Nothing like you'd expect, nothing dramatic—no basketballs bouncing off heads, no teammates injuring each other, no air-ball free throws, that sort of thing.
Yes, through Sunday the Nets had only five wins—eight fewer than the next-worst team, the Timberwolves. Yes, at 5--51 the Nets were still on pace to break pro basketball's record of shame, the 9--73 mark set by the 76ers in 1972--73. Yes, the Nets have yet to even put together a winning streak. Here is a quick breakdown of their season: Lose 18, beat the Bobcats; lose one, beat the Bulls; lose 10, beat the Knicks; lose 11, beat the Clippers; lose eight, beat the Bobcats again.
Stark. And yet, when you actually watch the Nets play, it feels as if you're watching a real NBA team. Take last Thursday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., one night after they beat Charlotte to get that elusive fifth victory. ("The drive for five," the New Jersey beat writers bitterly called that three-week odyssey. Now they are on to "the joy of six.") The home team is introduced with a light show, the mascot dunks off a trampoline, the dance team throws burritos at clamoring fans. It's another NBA night in another NBA town. And the Nets lead the Heat by six with five minutes to go.
"You can't lose that game," New Jersey point guard Devin Harris will say after it ends.
No. You can't lose it. And yet, you know the Nets will. For most of the night they have looked like the superior team, especially with Miami star Dwyane Wade out injured. New Jersey's second-year center, Brook Lopez, is the best player on the floor—he has 26 points and 10 rebounds, and at times he looks like a young Tim Duncan. Harris, an All-Star last season, gets to the basket at will. The Heat players seem almost resigned to defeat. You can't lose that game. So how do the Nets lose?
Here's how. They fail to get the ball to Lopez for the rest of the game. ("That's my bad," Harris says later.) Shooting guard Courtney Lee misses back-to-back wide-open three pointers that would have given the Nets a nine-point lead. (Lee finishes 0 for 9 from the floor.) Swingman Jarvis Hayes misses an open 16-footer. Power forward Yi Jianlian, for reasons that nobody understands, tries a 21-foot jumper and misses. Harris misses a pair of short jumpers. ("Short-armed 'em," he says sheepishly.) Reserve big man Kris Humphries has his layup attempt blocked by two Heat players. All in all, the Nets—whose field goal percentage (42.5 at week's end) is the worst in the league in six seasons—miss 10 of their last 11 shots.
And Miami wins 87--84.
"We just didn't make shots," interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe whispers after the game ends. "You've got to make shots. You've just got to make shots."
The 51-year-old Vandeweghe looks haggard. This isn't the first time he's said those words. It will not be the last. You imagine him mumbling, "You've got to make shots," again and again, all night and well into the morning.
Sure, there have been a few funny moments. It is impossible to have so many things go wrong without having a few of those. There was the time in January when motivational speaker Joachim de Posada came to talk to the players and, to prove that the human mind can overcome all kinds of pain, stuck a needle in his cheek. He then tried to stick more needles in his face but team officials, believing the point had been made, stopped him.