Nets vs. Hawks: Brooklyn Shifts Into Road Warriors
After crowded schedule kept Nets mostly at Barclays Center, they'll hit the road for 10 of next 13 games
A little over a month into the season, the 11-8 Brooklyn Nets have in fact played more games than any other team in the league, and they’re closing out a month of January in which they’ll play 17 games in 31 days.
The plus side to the early schedule has been the opportunity to keep bags mostly unpacked and routines largely intact. They’ve played 13 of their first 19 games at Barclays Center, with one of the six road games across the river in Manhattan.
That whole dynamic is about to flip. While the Nets will have a few more off days slipped into the schedule than they’ve seen since Christmas, they’re going to play 10 of their next 13 games on the road over the next three-plus weeks, starting with Wednesday’s game in Atlanta and capped off by a five-game West Coast road swing. It’s obviously the first really road-heavy stretch of the season for the Nets, in a season where the travel experience is far different and far from ideal due to COVID protocols.
“It’s a tough year, but the deal is the same for everybody,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “So I think we are going to face a lot of challenges this year on the court, but we’re going to face a lot off the court — the congestion, the schedule, the travel, the COVID protocols, cabin fever, COVID fatigue, all those things that are just a part of life nowadays and that we all have to face, an incredibly intense set of circumstances to complete the season. And so we are challenged by how many games we play in short succession, all of the protocols, testing, the ability to, in a way, have a life outside.
“That goes for everyone, not just NBA players, but it’s particularly, I think, tough for NBA players to be stuck in a hotel and not be able to leave when they go to another city. That’s not a complaint, and I’m not crying about it. I’m just saying that is the deal, and it’s tough. I feel for our guys because it’s basketball and cabin fever in a sense. So they have to embrace it and we have to realize that this is a challenge unique to other seasons and we have to try to find a way to take it on without allowing it to ruin us, in a sense. I think there will be teams that will really struggle with this, and we have to try to be one of the teams that handles it well.”
The switch starts with this week’s three-game trip to Atlanta, Washington, and Oklahoma City. The Nets have faced all three already, splitting a two-game home set with Atlanta, and losing to both the Wizards and Thunder. While that was a different iteration of the Nets, before the trade for James Harden, all three gave the Nets trouble with their offenses. Brooklyn has a defensive efficiency of 110.7 for the season, while the Hawks put up offensive ratings of 132.5 and 117.2 in their two games against the Nets.
“Atlanta has a lot of really good young players that are all really capable off the bounce,” said Joe Harris. “Typically, you might face a lineup where it might be just one or two guys that you’re really cognizant of being able to put it on the deck and get it by you. There’s times when Atlanta can put five guys out there that are all capable of attacking you. It’s definitely a big guard-your-man game, keeping your man in front, but then also collectively, having those backside rotations, having each other’s backs. It is gonna be a big test for us, and something that we’re not unfamiliar with because we have, like you mentioned, played against them twice already.”
The Nets continue to rely on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden for significant workloads, at a level that Steve Nash said on Tuesday is probably not sustainable over the long-term. In the six games since Harden’s acquisition, he and Durant are averaging 40 minutes per game, with Irving right in the neighborhood at 38.8.
Obviously related, Brooklyn’s bench minutes have dropped significantly. Through their first 13 games, the Nets were fifth in the league in averaging 20.1 bench minutes. Over the last six, that number has dropped to 14.5, the lowest in the league.
“We definitely want to monitor it and avoid that type of minutes,” said Nash before Monday’s game. “It’s difficult as we try to sort out our second unit and rotations, because you get into the game and if you have a chance to win, you want to win, and you want to try to play the guys that are going to get you the win. But I definitely don’t want to overdo it and play them too much, so that’s tricky. And they’re competitive. When you take them out, they’re not happy. We’re trying to find that line of, we need to win games, but we also need to preserve them to win at the end of the season, and we’ve had an incredibly difficult stretch where we’ve played more games than anyone in the league, so we’re trying to find that balance where we can get our rotations down, get that newness out of the way, jell and at the same time not have to play those guys high 30s or 40 minutes a game.”
HARDEN WITH THE SECOND UNIT
As for that off-the-bench group, with the trade for James Harden followed by the return of Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn’s lineups and rotations are starting to stabilize for now. The Nets are going nine-deep, with forward Jeff Green playing the most significant minutes off the bench and James Harden taking the lead role with the second unit as Steve Nash staggers his starters to ensure some scoring punch with the second group.
Harden has eased into things, keeping a priority on setting up teammates, and guard Bruce Brown tries to stay active and aggressive while playing alongside the league’s assist leader. But he wouldn’t mind seeing the three-time scoring champion call his own number more often.
“I think with us the second group we need him to score the ball a little more,” said Brown. “But we're all still getting used to each other. There's times where I don't even know where to go on the offensive end. I just stand dunker or in the paint, so we're still getting used to each other, but second unit for sure we need him to be more aggressive and the role players out there we have to help him out too.”
ABOUT THE HAWKS
After the Hawks split a pair in Brooklyn at the beginning of the month, they went 4-7 going into Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers, with two of the wins coming against Minnesota and a third against Detroit, the two teams at the bottom of their respective conference standings. Bogdan Bogdanovic has been out with a knee injury, and both Trae Young and Clint Capela were out Sunday against Milwaukee and listed as questionable for Tuesday night against the Clippers. Young leads Atlanta in points (25.3) and assists (8.7), while Capela leads the Hawks in rebounds (14.5) — good for second in the league — while averaging 14.2 points per game. The Hawks gave the Nets a test back at Barclays Center, with Brooklyn winning a 145-141 shootout before Atlanta took the second game of the set, 114-96. Atlanta’s offense was a challenge to deal with; though the Hawks are in the bottom third of the league in field goal percentage (44.3) and 3-point percentage (34.9), they’re in the middle of the pack in offensive rating (110.2), ranked No. 14. Defensively, Atlanta is seventh in defensive rating (108.3), second in opponent 3-point percentage (32.4), and fourth in opponent field goal percentage (44.4). The Hawks are also second in rebounds per game (48.7) and sixth in rebound percentage (52.2).