The Nets (24-13) trail the first-place 76ers by a half-game in the Eastern Conference standings, and they begin the second half of the season against the Celtics Thursday night at Barclays Center. Here are five keys for Nets success in the final 35 games of the regular season:
1. Big 3 health and time to grow together: The Nets have played 24 games since acquiring James Harden in a trade, and Harden has appeared in 23 of those games, Kyrie Irving in 19 and Kevin Durant in 10. All three have shared the floor together just seven times. The Nets have dealt with constantly changing lineups because of injuries and COVID-19 medical protocols involving many other players, but it is critical for Harden, Irving and Durant to grow together and become dominant once Durant returns from a strained hamstring that caused him to miss the last nine games before the All-Star break.
2. Define a role for Blake Griffin and other Nets big men: The Nets lost rim protection and defense when they traded center Jarrett Allen and forwards Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs in the Harden deal, but they have regained frontcourt depth with the signing of former All-Star forward Griffin and the return from injury of Nic Claxton to work alongside veterans DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green in the frontcourt. Griffin will accept a backup role as a power forward or as a small-ball center, and Claxton has proved in the minutes-restricted five games he played that he deserves more time.
3. Find shots for Joe Harris: Harris is having a phenomenal season with an overall shooting of 53.0%, NBA-leading 50.6% from three-point range, 57.7% on two-point shots and 69.7% effective field goal percentage. But he occasionally is overlooked in the offense, getting single-digit shot attempts 11 times since the Harden deal. When Durant returns, Harris will be even more open, and the ball must continue to find him. The Nets rank second in assists per game (27.2) and have had at least 30 assists 14 times, and that ball movement must continue to drive the offense.
4. Bruce Brown must remain effective in a bench role: Because of injuries, Brown has started 14 of the Nets’ past 17 games and has scored in double figures nine times, including the past six straight, while also playing a critical defensive role. At times, he has played as a 6-4 center and has been incredibly effective around the basket with 65.3% two-point shooting. Durant’s return likely will push Brown to the second unit, and Griffin’s addition likely will keep Brown at guard. His offense is bound to be more limited, but he remains a top-notch defender who should play a key bench role.
5. Nets must stay focused on physical defense and limiting turnovers: The Nets were on a 10-1 roll heading into the All-Star break, and the reason was an improved defense allowing an average of 110.7 points per game during that stretch, and a reduction in turnovers that were fueling opposing offenses. They are at their best when they communicate at the defensive end and eliminate careless ballhandling mistakes, and they get in trouble when they start trading baskets. Jordan still can be a defensive force, and Durant will help in that area. Brown, Claxton and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot must continue to play prominent bench roles on defense.