When Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Nets two years ago in free agency to lay the foundation for a so-called "superteam," it was an outgrowth of their friendship, not a lack of success. Durant had two titles with Golden State and was a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and Irving hit the shot that clinched a title for the Cavaliers back in 2016.
So the member of the Nets’ Big 3 with the most to prove and the most to gain is James Harden, who has been steering the Nets’ juggernaut when healthy. Harden is an MVP and three-time NBA scoring champion, but this is his 13th season and he has reached the NBA Finals just once in 2012 with the Thunder, who fell to the Heat in five games.
The Nets are facing an NBA Finals-caliber opponent in the Bucks when they begin their second-round series Saturday night at Barclays Center, but Harden admitted he believes this represents his best chance to win a title.
"Every year, your plan is to win a championship," Harden said. "In reality, it is only a handful of teams that have an opportunity, and we’re one of those teams this year. So I think the excitement is there, but I think the focus is the most important thing for myself.
"I’m just trying to rub that focus level and that engagement to detail into every one of my teammates. We all are excited and locked in, we just have to keep reiterating it and reiterating it … I think our team will be really, really good because, offensively, we’re great. We just got to have some consistency, which we’ve been these last few games."
The Nets’ Big 3 got just eight games together healthy during the regular season but had five more in their first-round win over the Celtics in which they averaged 85.2 combined points, an NBA playoff record for a trio. Reviewing the first-round series, Harden said the Nets learned the importance of playing physical defense.
"When we get multiple stops in a row and we go out and get layups and threes from all of our guys, it’s very difficult to beat us," Harden said. "That has to be our mindset. Game 3 in Boston was a learning experience. We let Jayson Tatum get 50 on us. From that point on defensively, we were locked in, and we had spurts offensively, where it was like, ‘Sheesh, this is crazy.’ So that defensive mentality, we have to have that consistently."
The Bucks won the regular-season series 2-1, and their Big 3 of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday averaged 85.3 points against the Nets. Harden led their home win with 34 points and 12 assists in January but sat out two losses in early May with an injury.
Asked what the Nets learned, Harden said, "We pretty much know how they guard. They’re a very good defensive team, very long, they’ve got good individual defensive players. The two games where I didn’t play in Milwaukee, I just got to sit back and watch those games, see things we can capitalize on and things that would be effective against them. They’re a great team on both ends of the ball. It’s not going to be an easy challenge, but we’re up for it.
"They’ve had their core and they added some really good pieces, which is why they’ve been one of the best teams all year. As you look at our roster, we’re elite, too. It’s going to be a showdown. I’m more than confident going into the postseason just because of our roster, our schemes and the versatility we have."
Notes & quotes: Forward Jeff Green (left plantar fascia strain) has been ruled out of Game 1.