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Nets don't have time for moral victories

NEW YORK -- Since mid-March, the Brooklyn Nets have lost just four games, against the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks (twice).

Over that span, only five teams have a better record: the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Cavaliers.

Despite all of that, it seems the Nets are just as likely to miss the playoffs as they are to make them.

And that's what makes their current situation so frustrating.

You want to give them credit for playing their hearts out against the Hawks and almost beating them in front of owner Mikhail Prokhorov -- who finally showed up for the first time since Nov. 5 -- and the rest of their raucous fans on Friday night at Barclays Center.

They deserve all of it.

But you also have to look at the big picture. And the reality is that their 114-111 loss to Atlanta means they're just one game up on Indiana and Miami for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with four games left. It also means that for the first time since they moved to Brooklyn, the Nets will finish with a losing record.

"It's not really a moral victory in that sense," Deron Williams (10 points, 13 assists) said. "I guess it's good because we pretty much got blown out by [the Hawks] every [other] game. It's a game we wanted. It's disappointing how we started the game. We did finish well and we had our chances. But we needed to be competitive against them, and I thought we were tonight."

Atlanta (59-19) closed out a four-game regular-season sweep of Brooklyn (36-42) without the services of Paul Millsap (shoulder), Pero Antic (NYC club incident) and Thabo Sefolosha (ditto). The two teams would face each other in the first round if the playoffs began today. The Nets would be facing an uphill battle against the high-octane Hawks, who are a well-oiled offensive machine. If it's not Al Horford beating you, it's Jeff Teague. If it's not Teague, it's Kyle Korver. And if it's not Korver, it's Millsap.

Atlanta runs brilliant offensive sets. Ball and player movement leads to open shots. Even without Millsap, Brooklyn's defense was mostly helpless. The Hawks shot 50 percent and drained 11 3-pointers. Horford (24 points) was unstoppable in the pick-and-roll. Brook Lopez (26 points, 10 rebounds) had no chance. During the season series, Atlanta averaged exactly 114 points. The Hawks' margins of victory were 23, 11, 32 and three.

Joe Johnson, the reason the Hawks will be able to swap first-rounders with the Nets at the end of the season thanks to a 2012 trade from Atlanta, missed a game-tying 3-pointer right before the buzzer. It looked good. It felt good, Johnson said. But it didn't go down.

Brooklyn was down 12 points in the fourth quarter before mounting a comeback. But in the end, the Nets got out-executed in crunch time. They were ahead 111-110 before Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer ran a pin-down for Korver. Williams arrived late while chasing the 3-point shooter extraordinaire. Lopez was caught in no-man's land, although he wasn't to blame. Horford got lost down low, and Korver fed him for a dunk that put the Hawks back up with 19.1 seconds remaining. It was the perfect play.

"I'm definitely gonna be thinking a lot about that, dreaming about that," Lopez said.

The ensuing Brooklyn possession culminated in Jarrett Jack missing an open corner 3 and Bojan Bogdanovic missing an open triple from the top of the key following an offensive rebound. There were probably better options.

The Nets have four games left against the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic. They still control their own destiny. They need to win.

It won't matter that they've been playing well since mid-March unless they get in the playoffs.

And even then, it'll be extremely tough unless Jason Kidd's Milwaukee Bucks somehow unravel and Brooklyn moves up to the No. 6 seed.

"We've shown we can play with anybody on any given night," said Thaddeus Young, who fouled out with his fifth foul coming on a controversial charge call with 1:50 left.

Young's right. But now's not the time for moral victories. If only.