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Nets' Big 3 shows it can dominate without many reps together

The All-Star trio led Brooklyn to a big win over Chicago in just its 2nd game together this season.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were together on the floor Wednesday for just the 2nd time this season.

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CHICAGO – By all means, the Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving need to play together now so they can play together later. Because without sufficient court time, heaven knows how they’ll muddle through crucial games this spring …

Blah. Blah. Blah.

While observers and Nets fans might be inclined to buy into that sort of hand-wringing given how limited Durant’s, Harden’s and Irving’s shared minutes have been, the reality on display at United Center Wednesday night argued otherwise.

In only their second game together this season, the Big 3 and their team looked fine in Brooklyn’s 138-112 drubbing of the Chicago Bulls.

They combined for 61 points, 13 rebounds and 28 assists in their shared 15 minutes. The Nets actually got outscored by a combined 38-37 in three separate stints with Durant, Harden and Irving on the floor. But with them playing in pairs, solo or not at all, it was 100-75, Brooklyn, in the other 33 minutes.

Game Recap: Nets 138, Bulls 112

The Nets defeated the Bulls 138-112 behind James Harden's 25 points and season-high 16 assists.

Having them healthy and available – or given the New York vaccine mandate Irving has bucked so far this season, present and accounted for – seems to be enough. They slipped back into a veterans’ ease in logging their first victory of the season over a Top 4-seeded team from either conference (the Nets had been 0-8) and their first win in three tries this season against the Bulls.

There was no need for a second or third basketball. A rotation already taxed by injuries – Joe Harris, Nic Claxton and LaMarcus Aldridge were out, while Paul Millsap got a DNP – wasn’t stretched further. Harden played about half of the fourth quarter but Durant and Irving sat it out, enjoying the rout. And the Littler 9 won that quarter too, 37-33.

“Having our whole starting lineup out there – us three, me, Ky and James back together – I think we kind of settled the bench down and put everybody back in their roles,” Durant said afterward.

Said coach Steve Nash: “These games can definitely give a team confidence. Give ’em mojo and something to build on, but it can also not. So it’s in the bank. We’ve shown that we can perform this way, we’ve shown the type of spirit and energy we can bring to the game, the purpose. Now we got to build on it.”

A moment later, Nash cautioned, “It’s not linear.” But it doesn’t need to be. What Brooklyn’s Big 3 do when they are together is enough. Regardless of how many games or practices they share in advance.

Consider: Since Harden arrived in that massive four-team trade last winter, he and his two big-name compadres have played a grand total of 16 games and 364 minutes together. That includes eight games last season, six playoff appearances, Irving’s 2021-22 debut last week in Indiana, and this one against Chicago.

Brooklyn is 13-3 in those games. In all the rest of that time, the Nets are 59-34, a .634 winning percentage that isn’t bad. But it’s not .813, either.

The Nets didn’t get ousted by Milwaukee from the East semifinals in seven games last spring because their three stars hadn’t played together enough. They got ousted because they weren’t playing together right then. Irving and Harden each appeared in four out of the seven games, but they all were involved for a total of 43 seconds – until Harden grabbed his right hamstring at the start of Game 1.

So this notion that Nash and his team need to go into the lab and spend days, weeks, months unlocking the winning-basketball formula for how Durant, Harden and Irving can thrive as one seems rather silly. Watching the three in action – say, an early play Wednesday in which Durant scraped by an Irving pick, delivered the ball to the rolling point guard, then saw him instantly hit Harden in the right corner for a 3-pointer – and how smoothly the veteran offensive stars can mesh, it seems sillier.

“We’re that good,” Harden said later, adding, “We’re not far at all. We’re all killers. We attack. But we’re all unselfish. We like to just make the right play. So it won’t take long at all. We just got to be out there on the court and be out there doing it.”

If ever there was a season where that would be enough, this is it. Continuity? Schmontinuity. With so many players heading into and out of the league’s virus protocols over the past month, locker rooms have revolving doors and the little jersey ads have been getting covered up by name tags.

No team in the NBA is getting the reps it wants for its preferred lineup. The Nets, well, their situation is just a little different because of Irving’s newfound home vs. road availability.

Much can change – New York rules, virus fears – before Brooklyn has to navigate a playoff series with and without its iconoclast point guard. The Nets might not be in the same boat as other championship contenders but so far in 2021-22, they’re all in boats.

Durant chuckled late Wednesday night as I asked him about folks fretting over their minutes and games together, in a season where almost no one is happy on that front.

“We’ve got a veteran group,” he said. “It’s always good to get reps in and continuity is important in this league. You’ve seen the teams that have continuity and how well they’re playing this season. So that’s important.

“But we also know it’s a weird season like you said. There are so many hardship guys who come in and lineups may change. But I think we’ve got guys on this team who understand what good basketball looks like. … It’s a balance we have to have – we want to get reps in but we also know what the big picture is.”

The big picture for Brooklyn is the Big 3. If they’re healthy, if they show up for work on any given game night, they’re a problem.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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