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Brooklyn Nets were built for the Finals, but their chemistry will be tested along the way

·5 min read
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Doc Rivers sat in a chair, socially distanced from reporters and wearing a mask, and tried to explain why the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

“We didn’t get much time to be together,” he said.

The second-seeded Clippers fell short of expectations.

It’s hard not to look at this season’s Brooklyn Nets and wonder if they will run into the same issue.

Did their All-Star trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden have enough time to develop chemistry on the court to win the Eastern Conference? Can they find the necessary chemistry and familiarity in a short time? Will they deliver? Can they stay healthy?

Those questions involving those stars for that franchise in that city make the Nets the most riveting storyline in the East headed into the playoffs that begin Saturday. Making it even more interesting, the Nets play Boston in the first-round, and while the Celtics underperformed during the regular season, they remain a dangerous team led by Jayson Tatum.

Brooklyn isn’t gently wading into the playoffs against a pushover. The Celtics can make it difficult for the Nets who haven’t had their best lineups on the court often this season.

The Nets' All-Star trio of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant played together last week for the first time since February.
The Nets' All-Star trio of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant played together last week for the first time since February.

The Nets didn’t sign Irving and Durant in 2019, hire Steve Nash as coach in late summer of 2020 and trade for Harden in early 2021 just to reach the second round or conference finals.

“The lights are the brightest and the risk and rewards are the highest and you’re playing for it all,” Nash said of the playoffs. “This is why we work hard. This is why we train in the offseason. This is why we sacrifice the way we do as pros. You have an opportunity to do something special in the playoffs.”

This is a team built to play in the NBA Finals.

The talent is there.

The playoff experience is there.

Is the chemistry?

Irving, an NBA champion, Durant, a two-time NBA champ, and Harden (128 career playoff games) have played just eight games and 202 minutes together this season because of injuries, COVID-19 health and safety protocols and personal reasons. Since Feb. 13, they have played just one game and 16 minutes together, and that came in Saturday’s victory against Chicago.

Bore even deeper, Nash pointed out that two of what he says are the team’s best lineups have barely played even less time together.

Irving, Durant, Harden, Joe Harris and Blake Griffin barely have played together and same goes when the Nets switch out Griffin for Nic Claxton, according to NBA.com/stats.

Irving downplayed the issue with a Zen-like approach, believing talent will win the day.

“It seems like it’s a factor if everyone keeps bringing it up,” he said. “I don’t really care. As long as we get our guys out there to be able to perform and at the level they’re capable of, that’s all I really care about.

“We’re pros. We’ve had all the pressure on us to get back right. People have yet to see us play together. You guys know how great we are as individuals. Everyone knows we’re all-world players. We’ve been in this league for a long period of time. We just go out there and find a flow and stick to it. It’s basketball. Just have some fun out there and just go out there and do what we do."

The Nets have other quality high-scoring lineups that involve DeAndre Jordan, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green. Even then, there has not been a lot of on-court time together. Brooklyn’s most used lineup has played 17 games and 192 minutes. Compare that to 32 games and 656 minutes for Philadelphia’s most used lineup and 45 games and 508 minutes for Milwaukee’s most used lineup.

The Nets need to find playoff mode quickly with a potential second-round matchup looming against Milwaukee. Nash knows that.

The Nets have also been trying to incorporate Blake Griffin (2), acquired in the buyout market in March, into their lineup with Kevin Durant and their other All-Stars.
The Nets have also been trying to incorporate Blake Griffin (2), acquired in the buyout market in March, into their lineup with Kevin Durant and their other All-Stars.

“That is our gap we need to close, (and) that is where this week can help us iron out some of those things,” Nash said of a week off between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs. “We’re not going to get a ton of reps this week in that we also want our team to recover in what was a really crazy season (with) a lot of guys coming out of injury. But we also want to do spend time cleaning up what we do and having a better, deeper understanding now that we finally have near full ability.”

Durant said this week’s practice time – which was in short supply during a compact season – is beneficial for the Nets.

“To get back in the gym and fine tune our skills as individuals and as a collective is always good,” he said. “We enjoy these days. We can come work on our games, compete against each other – healthy competition against each other – and work on our stuff. It’s important to making a good team. These are valuable days, and we want to take advantage of them."

The bright lights are also on Nash. As a player, he knows what the playoffs are about. But how will he function in close, late-game situations? It helps to have assistants Jacque Vaughn, Mike D’Antoni and Ime Udoka on the bench with him. But that doesn't alleviate all the pressure on the head coach.

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“You are influenced by what’s happened to you and you try to take as much as that forward,” Nash said. “The knowledge and wisdom come from your experiences, but I also love to collaborate with everyone. I love to also adjust for ‘you may have a thought about something but once you put it through the prism of the personalities on your team, maybe I have a different thought about it.’

“It’s not really black or white. Everything is kind of gray. There’s an art and science to it all. While I’ll probably subconsciously lean on all my experiences, I also want to be adaptable and willing to understand my group may not represent the experiences I had. You have to be ready to put your team in its best position to be flying on all cylinders at the right moment.”

That moment, for Nash, Irving, Durant, Harden and the Nets, is now.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will the Nets' short time together keep them from their title dreams?