The Nets won’t be up against just the other teams in the Eastern Conference through the final 10 games of the regular season, they’ll be up against time.
And as they continue to struggle to find an identity with their new-look roster, that precious time is running out.
“You really don’t get the chance to do that until you go through a training camp and you spend time with each other and you learn about each other,” head coach Jacque Vaughn told The Post on Wednesday from P.S. 001 The Bergen, in Brooklyn, where the Nets announced a partnership with New York City Public Schools to provide community-based basketball clinics. “We’re trying to do it on the fly. We’re trying to expedite our jelling, that’s just the hand we’ve been dealt right now. Where we are, we accept that and look forward to the challenge.”
After a 115-109 loss to the Cavaliers on Tuesday, the Nets fell to just 7-11 since both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were traded.
They have had a month-and-a-half to adjust to their new core of Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cameron Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith, who all arrived in the two blockbuster trades.
Since the trade deadline, the Nets have fallen from the No. 5 seed to the No. 6 seed, leapfrogged by the Knicks, who were 3 ¹/₂ games behind the Nets when Durant was traded to the Suns and now lead them by two games.
More importantly, the Nets have gone from 3 ¹/₂ games clear of the unwanted play-in tournament to a virtual tie with the Heat for the No. 7 seed, the play-in cutoff, following Miami’s win over the Knicks on Wednesday night. The Nets (39-33, .542) are still .001 ahead of the Heat (40-34, .541) and own the tiebreaker.
With a rematch against the Cavaliers on Thursday night before a trip to face the Heat on Saturday, the Nets can’t afford to wait any longer to figure out how to get this new group going consistently.
That will require the Nets to go beyond what their opponents are tasked with. Most teams have a full offseason to get to know each other when there is a dramatic overhaul to the roster.
The Nets have no such luxury, as they must continue to juggle their adjustment while playing some of their most important games of the season.
“It’s not easy,” Vaughn said. “But I continue to stress to our team that it’s not an excuse not to get it done. Maybe it takes a little bit more, a little bit more of your time, a little bit more of your persistence, a little bit more of your effort to get it done, but it can be done.”
The Nets are stuck in a four-game losing streak, their second such skid since Irving and Durant departed.
To snap the skid, they get another crack at the Cavaliers, against whom they split their two previous games this year. The No. 4-seeded Cavaliers, according to Cleveland.com, said they would prefer to play the Nets in the first round of the playoffs over the Knicks, against which they are currently matched.
During Cleveland’s win Tuesday, the Nets had no answer for Donovan Mitchell, who poured in 31 points and resembled the type of star they now glaringly lack.
The Cavaliers, however, aren’t at the top of the Nets’ concerns. First, they have to make sure they can even get into the proper playoff field.
Perhaps the two most important games in that quest await them next.
“The biggest thing that’s hovering over us is trying to get a win,” Vaughn said. “That’s the most important thing. I don’t think we complicate it any more than that. Pretty simple as a team with our motives and what our goals are, and that’s to win the next game. We don’t know what the standings are going to look like at the end of this thing. On a nightly basis it’s changing.
“At the end of the day, that’s the great thing about basketball, it teaches you life lessons also. What do you do? For us, we have four losses in a row. Are you defeated? Or do you realize who you are?”