The Nets don’t do moral victories.
But if Saturday was a measuring stick — the second night of a back-to-back, minus three starters against the league’s best team — there were clear positives to be taken.
Just not quite enough of them.
The Nets ran out of gas late in a 124-114 loss to Boston before a sellout crowd of 17,983 at Barclays Center.
“All the things you want to talk about — shorthanded, back-to-back, I don’t care about those excuses,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “But the people who played showed up and gave what they had and we gave ourselves a chance to win. You can see us growing.”
Minus starters Ben Simmons, Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson, the Nets were down just 99-97 with 6:58 left.
But that’s when Boston — the NBA’s title favorite and only unbeaten team left this season — reeled off an 8-0 run to finally put Brooklyn away.
“I don’t like using excuses, back-to-back, but just losing another starter and trying to figure out guys’ different positions and how they play defensively,” Mikal Bridges said. “We were holding on, we were fighting. Had a good third quarter, pretty good fourth, and they just ran with it.”
The absence of Simmons — whom the team insists was taking a prearranged night off to manage his back injury — was felt acutely.
With him went their prodigious fast break, and much of their offensive identity.
“Ben’s a big factor on our team, one of our starters, so obviously it hurts not having him out there, and it’s gonna drop,” Bridges said.
“Definitely a different style without him,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 19 points, six assists and six rebounds. “Obviously we want to play with our arguably best player at all times. We’re going to go as far as him and Mikal take us, and now obviously with Cam playing so well to start the season, those three for sure.”
That different style was evident.
Cam Thomas poured in 27 points, but the Nets shot just 43 percent overall, dragged into the halfcourt against a bigger team that had Kristaps Porzingis (22 points) and Al Horford sitting deep.
The Nets had run off at least 20 fast-break points in every game this season, their longest such streak since the stat began being tracked in 1996-97.
They came in averaging a league-best 23.4 fast-break points, but mustered just seven in Saturday’s loss.
Bridges had 19 points but struggled through a 7-for-20 shooting night.
“Very good defensive team, but I just had a lot of 3s I was missing. I was open. Missed a couple middies, missed a lay-up,” Bridges said. “I was getting good looks, I was just struggling, which is tough.”
Jaylen Brown (23 points) made a jumper to put the Nets in an early 24-15 hole.
The Nets clawed ahead, Dorian Finney-Smith hitting a 3-pointer for a 41-36 lead.
But it was short-lived.
A 9-0 Celtic blitz left the Nets down by five, capped by a floater by Jayson Tatum (32 points).
The Nets were within 62-58 after a putback dunk by Day’Ron Sharpe (11 points, seven boards) with 1:10 left in the half.
But they let Boston score the final eight points, capped by a Tatum 27-footer with just 0.3 seconds left.
The Nets trailed 70-58 at the break and never led again.
They pulled within 96-95 on a 3-pointer by Dennis Smith Jr., but Tatum responded with one of his own to spark an 11-2 run that sealed it.
Simmons’ absence was pronounced, but the Nets (3-3) went into reassurance mode, comforting their fans that there was nothing amiss.
“Just injury maintenance for us,” Vaughn said. “Overall, just assessing where we are this time of the season, with the back-to-back — not saying this will continue — but the maintenance is a part of his progression right now.”
Vaughn insisted Simmons was feeling no back pain, that the player, coach and performance team targeted this game to sit him.
“Ben, I and performance [team] had this game circled as far as early in the season, the back-to-back that presented itself,” Vaughn said. “So this one was acknowledged at this point in time needed to be done. But no concern about that, what it looks like going forward.”
This story originally appeared on NYPost