“We’ve got a lot of games in a short period of time and it always seems like someone’s unavailable.”
Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said this last week before a game against Detroit, but it’s been applicable in almost every instance in the team’s 2020-2021 season to date since acquiring James Harden from Houston a month ago.
Whether it was Durant missing time on two separate occasions due to health and safety protocols, Irving being out a couple of weeks on leave or a knock here and there for Harden, Brooklyn’s Big 3 have played a total of seven games together. That number will stay at seven as Durant misses his second game in a row with a hamstring injury Tuesday in Phoenix while Irving is out with back stiffness sustained in Monday’s win over Sacramento that improved the team’s record to 17-12.
“Obviously we would love to have more continuity, chemistry,” Nets forward Joe Harris said, “where we’ve had a group play consecutive games together, at least establish a rhythm where we’ve been together for a long period of time.”
Brooklyn and almost every other NBA team playing in such a condensed schedule this season have not had that luxury. In the 186 minutes Durant, Harden and Irving have been on the floor together, the Nets have outscored opponents by 39 total points, 9.8 per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. The tricky part has been keeping everyone on the floor at the same time. Even trickier? Finding lineups that work for rookie head coach Nash that won’t completely crater and lose your team a game.
“I don’t know if we have the luxury to stay away from any combinations for the most part just because we’re thin,” Nash said. “We’ve gotta put bodies on the floor and sometimes we’ve gotta take some risks as far as combos.”
Staggering minutes when the three All-NBA Nets have been healthy has generally worked, with Harden guiding the second unit while Durant and Irving rest, letting him reprise his one-man show that served him so well in Houston under Mike D’Antoni, now an assistant under Nash in Brooklyn.
“When they’re not in the lineup with him, he should be more aggressive,” Nash said last week. And Harden has more than embraced his role as lead ballhandler, now tops in the league in assists but scoring his customary gobs of points when called upon.“An aggressive James is the way we want him to play. Some nights that might be 15 assists and some nights that might be 35 points.”
And as Harden gets run with reserves like Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and the Nets still put up positive margins, Brooklyn’s best three-man unit has been the trio of Durant, Irving and Harris at +124 in 350 total minutes, +16.1 per 100 possessions. But putting groups of players behind that, with guard Tyler Johnson currently featuring more prominently in Nash’s rotation, has been touch-and-go.
“You have to be able to rely on everybody 1-15, 1-17, whatever it is,” Harris said. “You have to be able to have confidence in guys that may not have much of a role now but are ready when their number is called and the opportunity is presented to them.”
That could now apply to newly-signed swingman Andre Roberson, Durant’s former Oklahoma City teammate, who brings a strong defensive presence on the perimeter. Game planning, Harris said, has been focusing on the available pieces for the next game, not which superstar happens to be unavailable as they prepare for upcoming opponents.
“It’s about controlling what you can and not letting the exterior factors affect the preparation,” Harris said.
The great news is that the Nets have found themselves a lineup to close out games that they’re really happy with. That’s Durant, Harden and Irving alongside Harris and Jeff Green.
“I think it’s a lineup that we lean on down the stretch and they’re developing something there,” Nash said. “But how many minutes have they played together over the course of the 25, 30 games? That’s something we’ll have to continue to develop.”
That group of five is the most used full lineup Brooklyn’s had all season, and they’ve spent a total of 76 minutes together over the course of seven games, outscoring opponents by a team-best 35 total points.
“It’s early but I think that’s a combination we feel comfortable with down the stretch,” Nash said.
Now, all the Nets have to do is keep those players on the court so Nash and Brooklyn can use the lineups they want to use rather than groupings they have to use.