EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You kept waiting for the Celtics to deliver the knockout blow and finish the decimated Nets.
A big Boston third-quarter run could have done it, but didn't. Back-to-back Ray Allen jumpers in the fourth could have done it, but didn't.
The Nets didn't win the game, still haven't won a game this season. But some of their players should have won over some fans and maybe even earned them some minutes when the cavalry returns. Everyone expected the Nets to lose by 20 and 40 the past two nights. But their guys battled and pushed the Sixers to the limit and had the Celtics, and everyone watching last night, stunned.
The final score was 86-76 Celtics, but the 10-point margin didn't happen until 33.6 seconds were left in the game. The Nets (0-7) were in this and even led by two heading into the fourth.
Eight guys, including just one regular starter, were all the Nets had against the Celtics, who had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace.
No way was eight going to be enough against this team, not when the eight were Rafer Alston, Trenton Hassell, Brook Lopez, Josh Boone, Bobby Simmons, Terrence Williams, Eduardo Najera and Sean Williams.
On the Nets' bench in jackets were starters Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, as well as Jarvis Hayes, Keyon Dooling and Tony Battie. At home tweeting was Chris Douglas-Roberts, whom the team announced prior to the game had tested positive for the H1N1 virus.
It was advantage Boston in a big way. Even if the teams were whole, it was advantage Boston in a big way, but you can't help but wonder whether at full strength the Nets would have stood toe-to-toe with the Celtics.
Sure, the Celtics may have been tired from playing -- and losing -- Friday to the run-and-gun Suns. Boston has some graybeards after all. The Celtics probably overlooked the Nets a little too, especially with the team they ran out there.
But this is where guys like Hassell and Simmons and Alston and Boone deserve credit. They took the challenge, played with pride and played like professionals. If Boone played with that heart every night, coach Lawrence Frank would have to keep him on the floor more.
The rookie Terrence Williams showed again he's going to be good. He can be a lock-down defender, and eventually, his shots are going to fall. But he played with tremendous passion and wasn't afraid of the Celtics. No one on the Nets was.
"I like the approach that our guys have," Frank said. "They have no fear of anyone and they're out to improve and get better and try to win the game."
They were. Despite 23 turnovers to that point, the Nets were down 82-76 with 2:58 left. A few stops and a few makes and they win. They got three straight stops, but missed five shots over three trips and never drew closer than six, never scored again.
Would the Nets have done better if they had their regulars? Maybe not. You have to believe the Celtics would have been more inspired. The Nets also wouldn't have as many defensive-minded players on the floor.
But from these two bitter losses, the Nets -- especially the guys watching from the bench or their couches -- should have realized what it's going to take to win games.
Eight guys, four starters out, whatever. They played back-to-back 48-minute games, which they hadn't really done the prior five games when they were at fuller strength.
Everyone should take notice of that. When the regulars return, shame on them if they don't play with the same effort and defensive tenacity as some guys who probably will be out of the rotation and in suits did these two nights and probably will until they go back to being 12th, 13th or 14th men.
Douglas-Roberts has been treated for his illness and is expected back with the team this week. It's possible he could play in Wednesday's game against the Sixers.
Lee is day-to-day with the groin strain he suffered Friday in Philly. He said he's playing Wednesday.
If both men are right and the Nets don't have any more setbacks, they should have 10 players available for Philly. And if they do, bet on Frank playing nine.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).