With Thursday’s 113-109 loss in Dallas, the Brooklyn Nets have lost four straight games, their longest losing streak of the 2020-21 season. The loss to the Mavs followed a pair in Milwaukee against the Bucks, who are battling the Nets for playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
“I think what we're seeing right now is we get down in these games we’re playing high quality teams that want to win for playoff seeding,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “It's a little bit of an uncharted territory for this group. So it's good for us, frankly. We all want to win every night, and I would have much preferred to win tonight. But some adversity, some higher-level competition is I think what this team needs going into the playoffs. We have no common experiences together in that setting, and so these are a little bit of a dress rehearsal, when you're playing playoff teams, teams that need wins that are really coming out to try to win these games and play at a high level. So it was good for us. The adversity is good for us. We're going to face adversity in the playoffs, and without having some adversity, now it may not afford us as much as going through this adversity.”
Now the Nets’ road trip moves on to Denver. The Nuggets have gone 18-4 since March 26, the league’s best record during that span, going into their Friday night game against Utah.
“If anything it gives us probably more of a sense of urgency to go out and get a win,” said Joe Harris. “So our next game against Denver, I know guys are pissed off and I think the level of focus — we know the playoffs are right around the corner — so the level of focus is definitely amplified a bit. I think just now, given our circumstance where we have lost four in a row, there is definitely a certain sense of urgency there to go out and get a win. But I don’t think anybody is necessarily looking at it as a big negative or trying to create that sort of narrative around it. It’s exactly what Steve said. You have to look at this as a positive opportunity where this is good for us to experience some adversity especially here late in the year. Hopefully, we can use it to our advantage and finish out the season the right way.”
With five games left in the regular season, the Nets have a half-game lead on the Bucks for that second seed in the Eastern Conference. If Milwaukee wins against Houston on Friday night, they’ll be tied with identical 43-24 records. With their two wins against the Nets earlier this week, the Bucks won the season series and would have a tiebreaker should they finish deadlocked. That would determine home court advantage in a potential second-round playoff series between the two teams.
So if it’s all amping up the pressure on the Nets heading down the stretch, Nash is fine with that. A pressure-packed playoff run is right around the corner anyway.
“We are in a part of our journey right now where we’re being challenged and we have to look deep within in terms of what can each one of us do in our roles to be better for the collective unit,” said Kyrie Irving. “This has to be about our team, it has be about we, and I think we do a great job of that. But now we are asking each other to go to a certain level. Some of us have been on a championship level, some of us have not, and trying to mesh that together takes time. Usually it takes teams one or two seasons, three seasons, or the case may be, but now we’re heading into this playoff run where we have to make it up on the fly. And that’s OK.
“But at the same time, things are not gonna look perfect and we have to inevitably be ready for that. Us as leaders, myself, all the other rest of the leaders on our team are gonna do a great job of preparing one another and simplifying things. But it starts with the mind and the body being on the same page. Gotta think the game. It’s the only way you’re gonna win that gold ball, that Larry O’Brien, is you gotta think the game and you gotta play defense and you gotta overmatch physicality. We’re seen that defense win championships. We’ve seen some of the best offensive teams get by, but defensively is where we’ve gotta make our mark and feel like we’ll be able to do that moving forward just having these tests and challenges now.”
HARDEN AND NASH
After a Thursday morning workout in Dallas, James Harden said he expected to return to action before the end of the regular season. It would be a welcome return. The Nets went 26-9 from Harden’s debut on Jan. 16 through March 31, the last full game he played due to a hamstring strain.
“It’s a pleasure to coach him,” said Steve Nash. “He’s so intelligent. He’s got an incredible IQ for the game, but just in life, he’s a really bright guy. He understands, cares. I think from afar you could see how incredible he is as a basketball player, but you didn’t know the kind of leader, the amount of passion and commitment he has for the sport and his team and his ability to lead these guys to — confrontational when needed, to being constructive and also to be supportive and to bring these guys together. So I’ve been really impressed. We know the game. We know he’s got an incredible skillset and ability to play this game at the highest level, but his leadership and the amount that he cares and wants this team to do well has been unbelievable.”
There’s a mutual admiration between the coach and player, each of whom took a major career leap while playing for current Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. Harden described Nash as a “genius” when it comes to basketball.
“He's elite. And obviously, that's winning two MVPs. Just his basketball mind, his IQ is above the charts and our communication is constant,” said Harden. “Like, literally, I think about basketball literally all day. We had a film session yesterday and we talked about some things or what not and just, I was thinking about it the entire day and I ended up calling Steve last night and he felt the same way. He was thinking about the game, thinking about the film sessions and what not. And we just talked for maybe 15, 20 minutes about things that we can control, things that we needed to be better at, things that he's seen on films or throughout the course of games and vise versa so it's just that constant communication that we're on the same page. Even though he's coaching right now, he's still a competitor and wants to win and he's an unbelievable leader.”
ABOUT THE NUGGETS
The Nuggets are 44-22 and in fourth place in the Western Conference — a half-game out of third — going into their Friday night game against Utah. The Nets won the first meeting, 122-116 on Jan. 12 in Brooklyn as Kevin Durant scored 34 points. Denver is fifth in the league in offensive rating (117.0), 11th in defensive rating (111.6) and sixth in net rating (5.5). The Nuggets are fourth in field goal percentage (48.5), seventh in 3-point percentage (37.8), seventh in free throw percentage (79.7) and third in assists (26.9). Though Denver is 11th in total rebounds per game (44.8), the Nuggets are third in rebound percentage (52.3). Center Nikola Jokic is 13th in the NBA in points per game (26.4), seventh in assists per game (8.4), and 10th in rebounds per game (10.9). Jokic shoots 56.5 percent overall and 40.5 percent from 3-point range. Denver has lost guard Jamal Murray (21.2 points per game) for the season to a knee injury. Forward Michael Porter is averaging 18.8 points while shooting 54.3 percent overall and 44.1 percent from 3-point range with 7.5 rebounds per game.