The Brooklyn Nets head out on a four-game road trip this week, just past the 20-game marker that means the first quarter of the season is behind them. They’ll take a 16-7 record into Tuesday’s game in Dallas, with a half-game lead for first place in the Eastern Conference as of Monday morning.
They’ve done some shape-shifting along the way. In Saturday night’s loss to Chicago, two opening-night starters were DNP decisions, while a third — Joe Harris — is sidelined after ankle surgery.
“It’s been great. Just learning on the job,” said James Harden after the Nets battled their way through a messy win against Minnesota on Friday night. “For real. It’s different lineups, guys in and out, different positions and what not. So we are just trying to find ways and find a rhythm to close games and honestly to it being a four-quarter game and find some rhythm. It’s been difficult, guys in and out of the lineups, but it’s no excuse. We still got to make things work and so far we have been doing it.”
Through it all, Kevin Durant leads the NBA in scoring with 28.6 points per game, Harden is second with 9.5 assists per game, and Patty Mills is second in 3-point percentage, shooting 47.4 percent.
Against Minnesota on Friday, Mills registered his seventh 20-point game of the season with 23 points, and over his last eight games — Mills moved into the starting lineup nine games ago after Harris suffered his ankle injury — Mills is averaging 17.1 points while shooting 53.8 percent overall.
“Big time, on both ends of the ball,” said Harden. “Being the little pest defensively and offensively, being ready to shoot and having that confidence that he has always been having since he has been in the NBA or even just playing basketball. He makes some big shots, timely shots and plays basketball the right way and you can tell.”
Over that same eight-game stretch, center LaMarcus Aldridge — who moved into the starting lineup five games ago and had 20 points against Chicago on Saturday — is averaging 17.0 points while shooting 5.9 percent.
The remade rotation has extended to new looks off the bench, such as an increasing role for bucket-getting rookie guard Cam Thomas, who has averaged 7.1 points in 18.0 minutes per game over seven games since moving into the rotation. Veteran forward Paul Millsap missed several games for personal reasons but has worked his way back into a steadier role and had a season-high 13 points with seven rebounds against the Bulls on Saturday.
“He was great,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “He did a little bit of everything. He scored the ball. He was able to initiate some offense. He got some rebounds, offensive rebounds. Got some steals. Just did a bit of everything. His intensity was great and I thought his impact on the game was really good.”
Millsap has teamed with James Johnson as the frontcourt pairing in Brooklyn’s small-ball second unit, with the two 6-foot-7 forwards giving the Nets flexibility on the defensive end. Though he missed Saturday’s game due to shoulder soreness, Johnson had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting with six rebounds against Minnesota on Friday. He’s moved into a more significant role, playing 24.3 minutes per game over his last seven games.
“We appreciate having a versatile player that can guard multiple positions,” said Nash. “He has played 13 years in the league, so I believe his experience, he brings toughness, I enjoy being around him every day. I don’t want to get into the weeds with what he brings off the floor because that is more for the players, that is their private time. But on the court, I love his experience, I love his toughness, his versatility as far as being able to initiate offense, get to the basket, make plays off the dribble and defensively he can do different things, get a deflection, get a steal, get a rebound. There is a versatility to his game that fits nicely with our group.”
Frontcourt reinforcements could also be in the offing with the return of Nic Claxton, who started the first three games of the season but missed 17 games due to illness before playing a few minutes against Minnesota on Friday night.
“That’s the positive and exciting part is that he is an athletic, active big that can guard multiple positions, can protect the rim, can roll on offense and just be destructive with his energy, length and athleticism,” said Nash. “That’s a unique profile for our team, so if we can get him back to where he’s confident and comfortable physically, mentally and emotionally and adapting to our team’s play, there’s no reason why he can’t regain that for us.”
Claxton had a high-end defensive impact last season, so he could further charge up a unit that has been strong through the season’s first quarter. The Nets are currently sixth in defensive rating, allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions, and they’re second in the league in limiting opponents to 42.9 percent shooting.
They came up short against Chicago on a poor shooting night on Saturday, even though Durant had a double-double with 28 points and 10 rebounds and Harden had 14 assists. The Nets had 28 assists against just five turnovers and outrebounded the Bulls, 55-47.
“Lot of good things tonight that we can take and we can go forward with,” said Millsap. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. Of course, we want to win, but we also want to figure out things that we’re not so good at and things we can get better at. When you play good teams, they’re going to expose some of those aspects and when they expose it, that’s when we take it and we try and get better from it.”
The next step is the four-game road trip that begins with a two-game Texas stop.
“Every game for us is a good challenge,” said Harden. “We’re still learning each other, we’re still growing as a team from last night’s game to tonight against a really good Chicago team on a back-to-back is a learning experience for us. To go on the road to Dallas and a back-to-back with Houston is a really good challenge for us. Every game is going to be a different challenge. It’s going to be good for us. All these games are building our character and building our togetherness as a collective group.”
Let’s take a look at who’s waiting for the Nets on the road:
December 7 at Mavericks, 7:30 p.m.
The Mavericks are 11-11 and in sixth place in the Western Conference, where — just like the East — there’s a significant crowd hovering around the .500 mark. Dallas is just one game ahead of 10th place Portland (11-13) and the Mavs are 2-7 since Nov. 17. Luka Doncic leads Dallas with 25.4 points per game and is fifth in the NBA with 8.5 assists per game. He also averages 8.1 rebounds. The Mavericks are fifth in the league with 38.2 3-point attempts per game, but they’re shooting just 33.9 percent, 21st in the league.
December 8 at Rockets, 8:00 p.m.
After starting off 1-16, the Rockets are showing some signs of life with six straight wins. While the first of those came against Chicago, the last four have come in a home-and-away pairing with Oklahoma City followed by Orlando and New Orleans — combined record 18-54. During that stretch, the Rockets are second in the NBA in points per game (119.3) and third in offensive rating (118.0). They’re also first in assists (29.3) and fifth in both field goal percentage (48.7) and 3-point percentage (40.8). For the full season however, Houston is 27th in offensive rating (102.6) and leads the league in turnovers per game (102.08) while playing the NBA’s fastest pace (102.08).
December 10 at Hawks, 7:30 p.m.
After a six-game losing streak left them 4-9 on Nov. 12, the Hawks bounced back by winning seven straight and are back to even at 12-12 as of Monday morning. The first loss in that early November slide came in Brooklyn, with the Nets winning 117-108. Trae Young is fifth in the NBA in scoring (26.2) and third in assists (9.4) while Atlanta is second in offensive rating (112.7), second in 3-point percentage (37.8) and sixth in field goal percentage (46.6). Clint Capela is third in the league with 12.5 rebounds per game and averages 11.5 points.
December 14 at Pistons, 7:30 p.m.
The Pistons have the NBA’s worst record (4-18) and the Nets have beaten them twice already this season: 117-91 on Oct. 31 and 96-90 on Nov. 5. Detroit has lost eight straight going into Monday night’s game against Oklahoma City. The Pistons are last or next-to-last in the NBA in points per game (98.9), field goal percentage (40.7), 3-point percentage (29.9), and offensive rating (100.0).