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League trend hits Nets before playoffs

For those Brooklyn fans looking to whet their appetites for postseason basketball, they did not find the remedy at Barclays Center Tuesday night.

Iman Shumpert and the New York Knicks cruised past the lackadaisical Nets Tuesday night at the Barclays Center.
Getty Images

In what promised to be a heated standoff between bitter rivals, the Nets and New York Knicks engaged in something tantamount to a preseason game on the eve of the playoffs. Although the Nets have had nothing to play for in the last two weeks, they will likely trek to Chicago without having played meaningful basketball any time recently.

The Nets laid an egg in a 109-98 loss to their rival. Even without Carmelo Anthony and basically Tyson Chandler, who sat for all but five minutes, the Knicks surged to a 21-point lead and cruised home with the win.

Head coach Jason Kidd and his players offered differing viewpoints on the game’s meaning. While Kidd had basically taken a pass on his media obligations, Paul Pierce wondered aloud about the team’s “sense of urgency” heading into the best part of the season.

“Going into the playoffs, you want to start building good habits, and tonight was an example of how not to take a step forward,” Pierce said. “We were off our game offensively, and that’s not how you want to go into the playoffs. No excuses about it; we have to be better.”

Pierce added that going into the playoffs, “you can’t just turn it on.”

Kidd, when asked if he was concerned, just uttered “No” several times while shaking his head. The press conference lasted shorter than normal, and Kidd’s actual thoughts were far better than what he allowed the media.

Andrei Kirilenko said the team is focused only on the playoffs, but can a bad streak heading into the first round carry over against a three or four seed?

“Unfortunately we have one more game left,” Kirilenko said. “Right now everybody’s waiting for the playoffs. ... The mood in the locker room is just like one more game and then we (get) started. One more game, a couple more days before the playoffs, so we’re trying to get ready.”

Maybe their version of getting ready involves blowout losses to division rivals missing their best player. Thankfully, at least Pierce seems concerned.

Don’t blame the Nets for that attitude, though. Blame the league.

While the Nets have spot-rested several key players in preparation for the playoffs, a majority of the league has showed utter disdain to field a competitive lineup. The NBA features some of the best playoffs found in any sport, but that same spirit and effort unfortunately does not translate over to the regular season. Too many games? A watered-down product? Too many teams? They are all valid questions.

WFAN radio host Mike Francesa said the way the season has transpired over the last month is “an embarrassment to the NBA.” Anyone watching Tuesday night could hardly disagree.

Surprisingly, the Knicks found more meaning in the game than the Nets, and they are headed to the golf course on Thursday.

“It sucks but you play for self pride,” Knicks guard J.R. Smith said. “No one wants to lose any game and at this point, you just have to go out and play hard.”

If only the Knicks had played hard when the season still mattered. Apparently, though, the games do not even matter to the playoff-bound teams.

While the tanking teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, among countless others are tanking in the name of the Draft, good teams are doing more or less the same. In a game which stood to decide the Eastern Conference champion, the Miami Heat rested LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade played just 18 minutes as well.

And that is the two-time defending champion. They have considerable stake in the outcomes.

While I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, I do agree that the NBA has a problem that needs fixing.

The Nets get full credit for avoiding this strategy for the most part, although they enjoy the luxury of one of the league’s deepest benches. Without such a solid supporting cast, they may have done the same.

The Nets have delivered the very best product for their home fans, amassing a 28-13 record on Atlantic Avenue. However, many wondered prior to the game if the team would even send a large portion of the players to Cleveland for the season finale. That can’t be good for business, right?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver will certainly face some long nights in curbing this problem.

The teams and players have, in one way or another, intimated that the regular season does not matter. Following the Nets’ season sweep of the Heat, LeBron fielded a legitimate question from TNT’s Craig Sager.

Are the Nets a legitimate threat to the Heat in the playoffs?

“Get outta here, Craig,” LeBron said without equivocation. “Next question.”

Either LeBron perceives the Nets as a real test and wanted to avoid the subject, or he really does not care about the regular season. The San Antonio Spurs started this trend with aging superstars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. No one can argue with the result as the Spurs will finish the 2013-14 season with the league’s best record.

The fan is the clear loser here, though.

Imagine a parents surprises their kids on Christmas Day with Nets-Knicks tickets in the regular season’s penultimate game. That looks like a pretty great gift on paper. Little did Mr. and Mrs. Nets fan know that the Knicks would be without Carmelo Anthony and any incentive to win, and the Nets would just be missing the incentive to win.

While this problem largely misses the Nets, the league collectively has to figure out how to make the regular season more important.

The Heat spent the last two seasons acting ambivalently toward the 82-game slate, and look where it got them: a second NBA title and the realistic shot at a three-peat. LeBron’s biggest argument for the MVP award is the franchise’s decision to rest Wade for long stretches of the season to preserve his legs for the playoffs.

This is not a product problem, however. It’s an attitude problem, an attitude toward the 82 games prior to the real season. The NBA will display some of the fiercest basketball ever played once the playoffs get under way. If someone wants to understand the state of the league, watch the playoffs. Forget that the regular season ever happened.

The two teams Tuesday night did.

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