Steve Nash said from the start that this would be a season where flexibility would be required, primarily due to COVID protocols and a shortened but compressed 72-game schedule.
It’s turned out to be so much more than that, from losing Spencer Dinwiddie in the third game of the season to a blockbuster trade for James Harden and a relentlessly fluid roster and availability situation.
In Nash, the Nets had a first-year head coach with a Hall of Fame pedigree as a player but no full-time coaching experience, even as an assistant.
“I've been exposed to so many things that coaches aren't necessarily exposed to in their first four or five months on the job and when it happens in quick succession you have to find out what your mindset is, how you're gonna approach these things,” said Nash. “Are you going to create a ton of stress and anxiety or are you going to accept and kind of mobilize the troops?
“Quickly, I learned there's not a lot of point in overstressing and creating nerves and anxiety. We just keep rolling and I think that helped inform our team. Our team approach is all the change — whether it's been 30-plus starting lineups and however many players have played for us — that's only possible to have I think the record that we have if people have the right mentality and mindset. So really proud of the players for handling that and for us to be in a position we're right now with 10 games left it's a testament to the group and all the people that work so hard around them.”
Through it all, Nash has the Nets in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 43-20 record and nine games remaining. Brooklyn is 29-8 dating back to Feb. 10, the NBA’s best record since that date. They host the Portland Trail Blazers at Barclays Center on Friday night before embarking on a five-game road trip that begins with consecutive games at Milwaukee.
“I think we definitely prioritize our environment from day one,” said Nash. “We create an environment where the players feel all the human qualities, you know — hope, reward, value, progress, togetherness, connectivity – so simple stuff really. You step back and that’s what everyone wants in their working environment and careers. We try to create that and try to value everyone. Regardless of who’s playing, foster a belief in connectivity and competition. Win or lose, we are trying to get better and we are trying to compete and trying to connect and improve our level of play our level of play through that connectivity and competition. So, all the technical stuff comes along with it but those are the fundamentals.”
“Steve’s done a great job,” said Landry Shamet. “Being a first-year, first-time head coach, that presents a number of issues. He’s obviously a great player, but it’s a different dynamic when you start coaching and there’s new challenges and probably nuances that he didn’t expect. He’s handled it all great. Not to mention coming into a team with this type of expectation and the scope that’s been on us, it couldn’t have been easy. I know it wasn’t easy. Credit to him, but he always preaches on the connectivity and staying together and building that constantly. He embodies it. He does a good job. He texts us individually. He reaches out. He makes sure we’re good. He talks about things outside of basketball and talks about basketball. Steve’s been great and he’s the spokesperson for that connectivity and us all being one.”
With 35 assists against Indiana in Thursday’s 130-113 win, the Nets have now had at least 30 assists in 24 games this season, a new franchise record. The Nets are third in the NBA with 27.0 assists per game.
Kevin Durant matched his season high with 42 points on Thursday night, his second 40-point game as a Net in 27 games this season. Durant shot 16-of-24 and added 10 assists for a double-double.
Since returning from a hamstring strain that sidelined him for 23 games, Durant has shot 65.4 percent overall and 61.3 percent from 3-point range, scoring 195 points in 201 minutes.
Availability will be up for grabs against the Blazers as the Nets play the second half of a back-to-back. Steve Nash has expressed a preference not to play Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin in both ends of a back-to-back and reiterated that when asked about Durant prior to Thursday night’s game. Griffin did play both ends of a back-to-back last week with the Nets dealing with some limited availability.
The Nets were without Kyrie Irving on Thursday due to groin soreness and Nash said “hopefully Ky feels much better tomorrow and can play” while Bruce Brown has missed the last two games with knee soreness. Nash said afterward that the Nets tried to “protect” Griffin, who played just 14 minutes, with the possibility in mind of bringing him back against Portland.
“I am not positive on Bruce,” said Nash before Thursday night’s game. “I think that’s a game time decision tomorrow. Blake, I’d like to not play him in back-to-backs but there is a case where if we have some minutes leftover from tonight for him that he could play a role tomorrow night, but I think that’s a game time decision or a decision that we do make tomorrow collectively. So we are in the process of … where my mind lends as far as protecting guys and making sure that they can be as whole as possible come playoff time, we also are fighting injuries or protocols or whatever we faced. Tonight you don’t have Ky and Bruce. Tomorrow night you might not have Bruce or Blake or Nic Claxton, so try to find a balance between protecting guys but also having an appropriate group, or at least a group available to compete.”
ABOUT THE TRAIL BLAZERS
The Trail Blazers are 34-28 and in seventh place in the Western Conference. They’ve won their last two games after a down stretch in which they lost nine of 11. Portland is sixth in the NBA in offensive rating (116.6) and third in field goal attempts (91.3) and 26th in field goal percentage (44.7). The Blazers are second in 3-pointers attempted (41.5) and made (15.7) per game and seventh in 3-point percentage (37.9). Portland is second in offensive rebounds per game (11.) and first in second chance points (15.1). The Blazers are 30th in defensive rating (116.4) and 27th in opponent field goal percentage allowed (47.8). Damian Lillard is fifth in the NBA with 28.2 points per game and also leads the Blazers with 7.4 assists per game. Enes Kanter is fifth in the NBA with 11.5 rebounds per game and averages 11.8 points. CJ McCollum averages 23.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game.