The 2020-21 NBA regular season offered so little reference on what a Brooklyn Nets team looks like with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden all available and on the floor together at the same time.
In Saturday’s 104-93 Game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics, the trio combined for 82 of Brooklyn’s points — 78.8 percent of the total scoring — including 28 of 31 in the third quarter and 48 of 57 in the second half as the Nets came back from a six-point halftime deficit after trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half.
There were also 40 isolation possessions, twice as many as any other team over the weekend set of Game 1s, and nearly four times as many as Brooklyn’s 10.9 per game in the regular season, which was second in the NBA to Portland.
“I think that’s something that we have the luxury of having those guys that are so difficult to defend in iso situations,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “But that’s not necessarily the way we want to go. We were probably more iso heavy the first game because it’s all so new, and in default, and Boston switched a lot of stuff. I think that pushed us towards more isos. But it will be interesting to see, it’s just all so new that we, like I don’t know, if that’s going to be something that we dominate the direction we go in or if we’re going to be able to get away from that more so and run more action. We’ve got to figure this out as we go so it’s hard to answer that question relative to small experience. The luxury is they all are incredible isolation players and it’s not the worst thing in the world, but I would like us to get more to where we’re playing off one another.”
Brooklyn’s wealth of offensive options invites single coverage and generates one-on-one possibilities. With Harden, Irving, and Durant sharing the floor with the league’s leading 3-point shooter in Joe Harris, plus Blake Griffin in the starting lineup, leaving anybody alone to run a double-team, particularly while Harden, Durant, and Irving are such skilled passers, isn’t particularly palatable.
“The attention on the floor, defensive attention gets spread out a little bit more,” said Griffin. “They’re all so dynamic on offensive and scoring the basketball that even when it’s just one on the floor, they still command a lot of attention. It’s just sort of being able to space the floor out properly and also not get complacent where it’s just like, ‘oh throw one of them the ball and let them do their thing.’ Let’s get into our sets, get some movement, and let them get into their iso or their breakdown off of that, so a lot of times when you have the luxury of having guys like that, you sort of lean on them just to go get it done, and I think we need to stay on top of making sure we still go through our sets, do all the things that we work on every day, then let them get loose.”
SECOND-HALF DEFENSIVE STAND
Over the first 22 minutes of the second half on Saturday, the Boston Celtics scored 29 points against the Nets. By that point, they were down 17 with two minutes to go and victory was in hand for Brooklyn.
James Harden noted afterwards that limiting the Celtics to 53 points in the first half was pretty solid as well. Boston in fact shot just 40.9 percent in the first half, and it was mostly some hot shooting from 3-point range — 52.9 percent on 17 attempts — that provided a six-point halftime lead.
Boston’s Jayson Tatum had 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting in the first half and finished with 22 points on 6-of-20 shooting — 0-for-6 in the second half.
“Our guys were great and hustled and played hard,” said Steve Nash. “Jayson's capable of scoring any night, so we're not sitting here like we have the answer for Tatum. No. He had a big impact on the game, I thought, although he didn't have a classic shooting night. So we know the pressure he puts on our defense. We know what he's capable of, and we go into this game with the same spirit and fire, knowing that that's what's required to be able to make it difficult for a player of his caliber.”
“We forced him to take some tough shots,” said Jeff Green. “You know, I think he was very comfortable in the first half and that’s what allowed him to get going. In the second half, people were a little bit more aggressive on the ball and that’s what forced them to take some shots that was tough for ‘em. I think we got to stay on the pressure, ‘cause that will make him put the ball on the floor and take contested shots.”
For Nash, the key going forward is to maintain the effort and intensity.
“If we think that we're the greatest defensive team of all time we're probably asking for a butt-kicking in Game 2,” said Nash. “If we're humble and hungry and try to stick to our details and our game plan maybe we have a chance to make it difficult for them.”
After Saturday’s game, James Harden conceded the Barclays Center sellout crowd of 14,391 fans shook him up a little. The Nets began the NBA season in December with no fans at all and eventually began welcoming small numbers of fans. But the allowable capacity took a huge leap for the playoffs, and Harden wasn’t the only one who felt the difference.
“When I got home,” said Jeff Green of when he got used to the change. “It was after the game. It took a while. I’m going to be real with you. It took a while. I haven’t played in front of that many fans in over a year. It was wild. I was happy to see all the fans in there, a lot of energy they gave us, obviously, from being there. It was something we’ve got to get used to again. But it felt great.”
“It was such a shock to walk out on the floor and see all those fans,” said Steve Nash. “Incredible energy from the national anthem. It was such, even for us coaches, we were like, it felt like we were on a movie set because it was so strange after the experience of this season to have the building so electric and so many fans so I think there was an adjustment for both teams probably.”
SORTING OUT ROTATIONS
Nearly every player on the Brooklyn roster has had a regular rotation role at some point in the season, but that was while the Nets were navigating a raft of availability issues. They’ve got essentially a full roster ready to go now. Only Spencer Dinwiddie, who has been sidelined by an ACL tear since the third game of the season, is on Tuesday’s status report.
So what does the rotation look like on an otherwise fully healthy Brooklyn team? Steve Nash went nine deep in Game 1, with four of the five starters — Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden — playing at least 36 minutes. Starter Blake Griffin, Jeff Green, and Nic Claxton all saw minutes at center. Guards Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet also came off the bench.
After Monday’s practice, Steve Nash suggested this is very likely the group the Nets are going forward with.
“I think we're always willing to be flexible to the point of experimentation, but I'm not sure that we have that many options,” said Nash. “We are where we are now, we're healthy, and these are kind of I think for our staff, clearly — at least the way we started the series — the rotations that make the most sense. And that's pretty clear to us. So we can always adapt. We can always change, from series to series. If we're fortunate enough to advance it's probably going to be different. But in this moment in time, I think we all agree that this is our path forward in this series. And if need be, we can change, adjust, experiment. But right now, I don't know that we have much many options. This is by far I think the rotations that we all feel comfortable with at this point in time.”