After all the crazy variables that have defined — and threatened — their up-and-down season, the final task for the Nets is simple.
The Nets have a chance to seal the No. 7 play-in position in the Eastern Conference in their regular-season finale after posting a critical 118-107 victory over the Cavaliers on Friday night at Barclays Center.
After Kevin Durant led the way with 36 points in 41 minutes to make up for a poor night of shooting from Kyrie Irving (7-of-22, 18 points), the Nets can clinch seventh place in the East with a win Sunday at home. against the eliminated Pacers.
Bruce Brown had a stellar complete game with 18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and four blocked shots, while Andre Drummond also posted a double-double (15 points and 12 rebounds) in the Nets’ third straight win.
The Nets (43-38) matched the Cavaliers, who lost 17 of their last 25, but coach Steve Nash’s team controls its own destiny by owning the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams. Finishing seventh or eighth would mean the Nets would only need to win one play-in game to qualify for the first round of the playoffs. The teams in the ninth and 10th positions would need to win twice to secure the No. 8 playoff spot.
All-Star shooting guard Darius Garland scored 31 points for Cleveland and Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley added 17 points after missing the previous five games with an ankle injury.
“I think for us just knowing that we have a chance to take that position gives us a little more fuel for the fire,” Drummond said before the game. “I think they are must-win games for us. I think we know what awaits us and we know what will happen if we win these two games.
“I think our sense of urgency is a little bit higher than before. And I think we’re ready to take the next step.”
The Nets have dealt with various roster issues throughout the season, most notably Irving’s absence from the lineup at home games through March 28 due to his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as injuries of Durant and others. Ben Simmons (back) also hasn’t dressed for the team since he was acquired from the 76ers in the blockbuster James Harden trade at the February trade deadline.
Behind Durant and Irving, the Nets overcame a double-digit second-half deficit Wednesday to beat the Knicks at the Garden.
Durant, who said after that win that “it’s too risky” to come from behind so often, propelled the Nets to a 34-17 lead Friday night with 16 first-quarter points.
The Cavaliers, who have been without All-Star center and former Net Jarrett Allen (finger) since March 6, closed within four points in the second quarter before trailing 62-54 at halftime.
The Nets’ cushion temporarily dropped to double figures early in the third, but Garland scored 11 points to lead an extended 28-11 streak, resulting in an 88-83 lead for the Cavaliers entering the final period.
Durant sat down to start the fourth but returned to the court after just 1:28, and put the Nets back ahead, 95-93, with a 3-pointer with 8:50 remaining. A Drummond dunk and two Irving free throws capped the Nets’ 10-0 run and extended their lead to six.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Durant and Brown pushed the lead to 105-97 just after midway through the quarter, with Brown running down the court afterward with both arms raised above his head as the Nets began to pull away.