New York Daily News
PIECING IT TOGETHER
Nets have title parts but lack continuity of other contenders
The Bucks have had a core group of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and head coach Mike Budenholzer for three years. The Nets, on the other hand, have barely had Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving together as a trio for more than three games, and their head coach, while highly decorated as a player, does not have the same resume in his first year on the job.
Brooklyn’s Big 3 has only played six-anda-half games as a tandem this season, and they haven’t played together since Durant’s Feb. 13 hamstring strain against the Warriors, the injury that cost him 23 games.
The byproduct was apparent on the floor on Tuesday: While the Bucks boasted a championship polish similar to the Lakers, the Nets were still learning about themselves on the fly. It’s the biggest problem for a team that wants to contend for a championship but isn’t as connected from player-to-player as other perennial Eastern Conference contenders.
Harden’s injury return date is up in the air — it’s unclear whether or not he’ll return before the playoffs — which means the Nets aren’t going to get their continuity right until the games truly start to matter. That could be bad news in the first round: As the second seed, Brooklyn’s most likely opponents are the Boston Celtics or the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, two teams with a culture, coaching staff and roster that have largely been in place for some time.
“Our gap for our team is that we don’t have a common history. We’re brand new, everything’s new” said Nash. “We’ve changed teams more or less a number of times, so we’ve got a gap to make up, as far as our understanding of one another.”
It will also be bad news in the second round, should they survive the first round only to meet the
Bucks for a No. 2-No. 3 matchup, even more so after back-to-back losses in Milwaukee against a Bucks team that’s identified the Nets’ big weakness.
It’s not just that they’re new to each other. The Nets also aren’t the most physical team.
Milwaukee outrebounded Brooklyn, 55-39, including 15 offensive rebounds for 20 second-chance points. Those are filed under opponent’s hustle points and 50-50 plays, of which the Nets had better win in the future if they’re going to beat teams like the Bucks, like the Sixers, and, yes, like the Lakers, on their way to championship gold.
“We’ve got to do the dirty work, because we have to give ourselves some sort of buffer while we figure each other out, while we get more familiar with our schemes and our sets,” Nash continued, “and give ourselves that little cushion, where maybe it’s not as smooth, it’s not as seamless at all times, but we’re still able to scrap and claw and stay in the games.”
Durant, who won two championships as back-to-back Finals MVP with the Warriors, admitted continuity is “a huge factor” and “a big thing in this league.”
But he was also quick to point to the Nets’ veterans, who he feels can help make up that gap in cohesion.
Durant has been competing for championships since losing to the Miami Heat with Harden and Russell Westbrook in the 2012 NBA Finals with the OKC Thunder. Irving made three straight NBA Finals appearances from 2015-17 before requesting a trade from the Cavaliers. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin were part of ferocious playoff battles on the Clippers for a decade. And Jeff Green played in a variety of playoff situations, including with both Durant and Harden in Oklahoma City, Harden again in Houston, and on a Celtics team that attempted to but never could return to the Finals after losing to the Lakers in 2010.
The Nets will be leaning on that veteran wisdom to help compensate for the years they haven’t spent together.
“We’ve got veterans on this team that played in different situations, that know pretty much every terminology that goes on in this league, and every kind of set that we run on both sides,” Durant said. “That’s in our advantage as well, having that veteran leadership, but we still are a connected group. I feel like we’ve been together for years, too, so we gotta continue to keep building on that.”
There’s also a tactical advantage. Yes, the Nets don’t know what their full potential is with Durant, Harden and Irving on the floor, but try this on: Neither do their opponents. o while they learned a lot about how they can play the Bucks should they meet in a playoff series, Milwaukee will have to re-learn their opponent given how drastically different the Nets can look when Harden, who is averaging 25 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds per game in Brooklyn, is healthy and on the floor.
“We had our chances. We didn’t execute when it really mattered,” Nash said. “But a great opportunity for us to take something from this series, from this game and grow from it.”