The Brooklyn Nets let a winnable game get away from them Friday night at Barclays Center, losing to the Houston Rockets after taking an early 14-point lead.
Not to cross the streams and mix sports metaphors here, but if the Brooklyn Nets were a long-distance runner, they’d most assuredly be the “rabbit.”
Great big start and then … nothing.
The rabbit is that runner who, often in conjunction with a better teammate, sets a blistering pace at the beginning of a race in order to give that other, better runner someone to chase in the early stages so they can be at the proper pace for when they kick into the big finish.
By the time that finish happens, that rabbit is either far back in the pack or has exited the course completely.
In their first season with Sean Marks as general manager and Kenny Atkinson as head coach, the Nets didn’t even have enough talent to be a rabbit. Instead, they plays the role of road kill most nights en route to a 20-62 season.
Last season, the Nets got markedly better and became a team better opponents had to work to overcome most nights.
Brooklyn’s games were often close, marked by the Nets coming out early and punching their opponent in the mouth, only to have that opponent come back in the later stages of the game to earn a close victory.
It’s been a talking point with this group all season that this is a young team, one of the youngest in the NBA with an average age of 25.3. a figure that is the fifth-lowest in the league.
For some perspective, the Nets are even younger than the Philadelphia 76ers, who have an average age of 25.5.
But the 76ers were a 50-win team a season ago and reached the second round of the playoffs. Brooklyn last season improved from 20 wins to 28 in a season marked by a host of narrow defeats.
But so far this season, they haven’t taken the next step in their evolution. They’re still that plucky team that the really good teams speak highly of in terms of their effort and how they make those opponents work so hard to get wins.
However, those comments are almost always uttered after the Nets have conceded those wins.
Friday night’s game against the Houston Rockets was yet another example of one of those games the Nets haven’t quite figured out how to finish.
The Rockets were a 65-win team last season, but have struggled to start the season and arrived at Barclays Center with a four-game losing streak, having lost three in a row at home by double-digit margins.
Brooklyn had to weather an initial flurry from Houston, falling behind 9-2 before a 7-0 run tied the game. The Nets kept sprinting — literally against the Rockets’ awful interior defense in the first half — to the rim, building a 57-43 lead by late in the second quarter.
The Rockets came back, of course, cutting that deficit to five by halftime, taking the lead in the third quarter and then effectively holding off Brooklyn’s inevitable run in the fourth quarter to leave the borough with a 119-111 win.
That left the Nets at 3-6 on the young season, on pace to win 27 games in what was supposed to be a season to both advance their developing roster and make themselves competitive enough to attract premier free agents next summer.
The Nets have had a slogan the last couple of seasons, something all NBA teams have developed in the social-media heavy era, a hashtag of #WeGoHard.
And Brooklyn does go hard. But they do so early. They are the NBA’s version of the rabbit of long-distance running lore.
The Nets, collectively, have yet to fully grasp that the work isn’t done once the big lead is attained. The hard part of playing in the NBA isn’t getting an early lead. No, what separates the good teams from the competitive but losing squads is the ability to go even harder once an opponent is down.
The Brooklyn Nets have been very good this season at jumping on an opponent early. They haven’t been good at all at putting that opponent away.
That will be the next step in the evolution of the Nets, the understanding that the rabbit never wins. Until that lesson sinks in, Brooklyn will keep on teasing and frustrating fans with great big starts before stepping aside to let the big boys run.