CLEVELAND - The Nets knew the level of competition was about to be raised more than a few notches, climbing to heights that weren't reached when they played the role of scavengers and scored victories over two of the league's worst teams.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers were just the first of a string of five straight games against teams ahead of them in the playoff picture, representing a season-defining stretch for a team that still has flickering postseason aspirations. But instead of rising up, elevating themselves to hang in the rarefied air of the team with the Eastern Conference's second-best record, the Nets instead proved once more that they're really nothing more than fish food for the league's upper crust.
"It's kind of one of the same old story things," Deron Williams said after the Cavs feasted on the Nets at Quicken Loans Arena, throttling them, 117-92, and halting their brief winning streak at two. "We've had a lot of those, where we come out and play well and just lose it. I don't know what the reason is, the cause of it is. But it's definitely disappointing."
Done in by a 32-8 spurt that was part of a broader 52-25 run spanning the first and second quarters, which rapidly erased any momentum gained by a 22-9 first-quarter lead, the Nets (27-39) are getting close to kissing their playoff chances goodbye. Though there are still 16 games remaining, they look nothing like a team destined for the postseason, particularly with the way they were lambasted by the Cavaliers (44-26), who were paced by former Knicks J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov, who each had 17 points, and LeBron James' 16 points and seven assists. Another former Knick, Iman Shumpert, added 10 points.
"Every loss is vital, especially in the East," Thaddeus Young said. "It's five, six teams fighting for the same two playoff spots. We can't go out there and close games. We have to go out there and put together a stretch of games where we can get ourselves back in position."
Throughout the course of this maddening season, the Nets have had their share of head-scratching plays. In succumbing to the Cavaliers during their second-quarter charge, one particular stretch mirrored the Nets' frustrating fortunes.
Trying to get something easy going on a three-on-one fast break, a necessity since their shooting betrayed them in the second quarter, Joe Johnson fed Brook Lopez as he was motoring toward the basket. But the 7-footer's dunk attempt was weak, allowing Smith to get a piece of his shot and ignite a Cavaliers' fast break.
Kyrie Irving fed James for the stuff, dropping the Nets back into a 55-45 hole, and an inexplicable backcourt violation on Williams on Brooklyn's ensuing possession certainly didn't help, aiding in the Cavs going up 59-45 just before the half.
"The second quarter, they went small and they destroyed us with their quickness and athleticism and shooting," Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. "That was the ballgame."