There wasn’t much missing from this Brooklyn Nets season that featured the highest winning percentage in franchise history, the most efficient offense in NBA history, and any number of individual accomplishments, from Joe Harris leading the league in 3-point shooting for the second time in three years to Kyrie Irving joining the exclusive 50/40/90 club for season-long shooting splits.
Yet it’s entirely possible that a fully operational Brooklyn roster has yet to be unleashed on the NBA. When the Nets open the playoffs Saturday against the Boston Celtics it’s likely they’ll do so with their 38th different starting lineup of the season, one that has yet to play a minute together in a game this year.
At the center of that is the way the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden has spent the season kind of just missing each other, particularly when Durant returned from a hamstring strain just as Harden was sidelined by the same. With 16 minutes together in the next-to-last game of the regular season, they totaled 202 minutes played together over eight games.
“As long as we get our guys out there to be able to perform and at the top of their level like they know how, like they're capable of, that's all I really care about,” said Irving. “I mean, we're pros. We've had kind of all the pressure on us to get back right or people have yet to see us play together. I mean, you guys know how great we are as individuals. Everyone knows we're all-world players. We've been in this league for a long period of time, so we just go out there and just find a flow and stick to it. It's basketball. Just have some fun out there and just go out there and do what we do.”
Saturday’s tip-off will be the next stage of this merger of three of the NBA’s great players, with 18 All-NBA honors between them, three NBA titles, and two MVPs. Irving and Durant shook the NBA when they decided to come to Brooklyn in the summer of 2019. Eighteen eventful months later, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks swung the blockbuster deal to acquire Harden from Houston.
Durant and Harden have more than a season’s worth of NBA playoff experience, dating back to their time together in Oklahoma City, where they went to the 2012 NBA Finals. Over 139 playoff games, Durant has averaged 29.1 points with 7.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, winning championships and Finals MVP awards with Golden State in 2017 and 2018. Harden has averaged 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists over 128 playoff games. Irving delivered one of the signature shots in NBA history with his Game 7 3-pointer to cap Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit to take the 2016 title and over 61 playoff games has averaged 23.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists.
“The intent here was, we didn't want to feel the same effects of being out in organizations or being out with different guys throughout this league that we felt like we couldn't build something outside of the game with,” said Irving. “It's just important to have that synergy. And a lot of situations and circumstances that we were in, we were trying to be ourselves but the environment just didn't stick, it didn't fit. And when we came together, we just wanted to be happy. Happiness goes a long way in life, especially when you're playing this game. Everyone likes to look on the outside and say what would this person do or what would that person do? And they have no idea what it's like to be in this role or this light and to build something special.”
Durant embarked on his Brooklyn journey with a delay built in. He expected to miss the 2019-20 season after injuring his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, but nobody could have expected the course that season would take, interrupted by a pandemic before being completed over the summer on a single site in Florida.
The 2020-21 season has been unusual in its own right, from its delayed start and compressed schedule to the health and safety protocols that each team has had to navigate through the pandemic.
But now the playoffs are here and Durant is ready to go after averaging 26.9 points on career-high shooting percentages of 53.7 overall and 45.0 percent from 3-point range, seventh in the league, while averaging 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
“It’s great to be available, it’s great to be out there playing the game that we all love, especially after a rough year not just for me but for everybody in general with COVID and pandemic and stuff,” said Durant. “I’m very grateful that we’ve got this opportunity to play with each other and build something that’s special, and it starts on Saturday. We haven’t done anything yet, so it’s not like we can reflect on all the stuff that we’ve been through. It’s more so like we’re glad we got this far as a group and we’re glad we continue to trend in the right direction and we’ll see what happens after this. So being able to play the game and do life with guys that I would call brothers in this league, it’s pretty fun. It’s the cherry on top.”
Harden arrived in Brooklyn as the NBA’s leading scorer each of the last three seasons and quickly shifted the narrative to his playmaking and all-around game. He averaged 10.9 assists with the Nets, his highest rate since he led the league in the category in 2016-17. In 36 games after the trade to Brooklyn, Harden recorded 12 triple-doubles, matching Jason Kidd’s single-season franchise record, and he averaged 8.5 rebounds.
Most significantly, the Nets went 28-7 when Harden played — not including his five-minute stint against the Knicks on April 5 — and closed the season with a 34-12 record from Feb. 10 on.
“It’s all about winning,” said Harden. “I don't care about stats. My impact doesn't have to show up on the stat sheet for us to win. Today in practice, I had zero points. We won. It's like, but just as long as — I think my job as a leader is to make sure everybody's playing well. If I'm doing that, I can focus on myself last. That's not a problem at all.”
Harden embraces the high expectations that surround the Nets, saying “1000 percent” he could see them as NBA champions if they’re at their best for the next two months. Over his seven full seasons in Houston, Harden led the Rockets to seven straight playoff appearances and two conference finals appearances but knows the obstacles that await.
“The role and the journey is still going to be tough, it’s going to be difficult,” said Harden. “So, I think the mindset is still going to be the same thing. Whatever it takes, trying to be the best player I can be on floor every single night for my team. So that mentality and that mindset never changed. It’s just some of the scoring, some of the things I have to do offensively, like you said, taking a step back a little bit and focusing on other things and that’s huge. We’ve talked about it these last few days. We have to bring several things – obviously, scoring is not one of them – but our defensive mindset, that has to happen like every single possession of games. And if we can get that – the faster we can get that – it’s going to be pretty tough for teams to beat us. Because, defensively, if we can get stops, offensively, we score so efficiently that you can’t catch up to us.”
Irving finished ninth in the NBA in scoring with 26.9 points per game while putting up 18 30-point games and five 40-point games, giving him eight 40-point games over his first 74 games as a Net, tied with John Williamson for the second most in team history.
He closed out the season with that rare accomplishment, finishing with a 50.6 field goal percentage, 40.2 3-point percentage, and 92.2 free throw percentage after making 97 of his last 100 free throws of the season. He said he didn’t realize going into that game against Cleveland that he was on the cusp of accomplishment that only eight other players in NBA history — among them his teammate Durant and coach Steve Nash — have achieved.
“I think after halftime I kind of had an idea,” said Irving. “Every single game that we played in the last 15 or 20, I’ve just tried to put my mind and my body in a better place to be efficient and just go out there and let my game speak for itself. I put a lot of hard work in during the summer, a lot of work where people aren’t watching, so to go out there and accomplish that without really knowing it, the gratitude is a lot higher for me. I just wanted to go out there and just do it and it happened. Probably some of the other times where I’ve written down a goal, it didn’t happen. You’re so focused on staying perfect, and the time I stopped worrying about it, it happened. So I’m just grateful for that.”
Now the NBA will get a full look at what they really can do together. The trio brings high-level playmaking to their elite scoring that elevates everybody around them. Harden has averaged 6.5 assists for his career, Irving 5.7 and Durant 4.2.
Late in the season, the trio had separate film session with Nash that the coach said was beneficial in keeping all on the same page as the playoffs approached.
“We're in constant communication,” said Harden. “We talk basically all day about what we need to do, our kind of approach to the game, and I think mostly it's not about offense. It's about defense and things we can correct and things we can get better on, things we need to get better on, and I think we all know that: us three and then the entire team and coaching staff as well. Not for one bit do I think the offense is gonna be a problem just because you're dealing with three of the most unselfish guys in this league, and three of the most skilled and talented players in this league. I know my role, I know what I need to do, I know what Ky and Kevin can do on that basketball court scoring wise. So I don't need to compete with them. My job is to go out there and make their lives a little bit easier, and if I can do that, then I'm doing my job.”