For first-time head coach Steve Nash, as much as for superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the sensation ahead of the Nets’ regular-season opener against Golden State Tuesday night at Barclays Center is akin to the excitement a kid feels on Christmas Eve. They got a sneak peek in two preseason wins, but now, it’s time to unwrap the big package and see what they have.
Asked to describe his feelings approaching the opener following practice on Sunday, Nash said, "I think excited really. Lot of excitement that it starts for real and there’s consequences and pressure and all that stuff why we love playing this game. Then obviously, for Kevin and I having ties with [Golden State] . . . I think we’re both excited about that, too. We’ve got a lot of love for those guys over there, and [we’re] excited to see them come to town and play against them and measure ourselves."
Durant won two NBA titles in three seasons with Golden State and was Finals MVP in both wins. Because of an injury, he played barely a quarter in the 2019 Finals before rupturing the right Achilles tendon that sidelined him the past 18 months. Nash was a consultant with Golden State and visited the training facility about once a month to work with various players in recent years.
That’s where Nash began to build a strong relationship with Durant well before the Nets hired him in September. Durant played well in two preseason outings, scoring 40 points in 51 minutes of action and generally looking like his old explosive self.
Asked what percentage Durant has reached in his return to form, Nash said, "He’s in the 90s for sure. Whether it’s 90 or 99, I don’t know, but I keep trying to tell him he’s got to give himself 15, 20 games before he starts judging himself. He’s done everything we could ask, but I think there’s no way to finalize who he is post-injury without playing NBA games.
"He’s going through this process, and I think before long – if we’re fortunate enough with his health – he’s going to be, I think, 100% Kevin Durant, no question."
Now that he has a chance to work on a daily basis with Durant, Nash has gained an even greater appreciation for him. Many times throughout training camp, the coach has praised Durant’s absolute joy for the game.
"He just loves basketball, loves, loves, loves the game," Nash said. "Great passion for refining his skill set and craft every day, competing and winning. That passion for it allows him to make a sacrifice. He’s here every day working his craft, developing skills, getting his rhythm. He’s just a joy to coach and watch someone that gifted. He never takes a day off or skips an opportunity to get better, and so, that’s the hallmark of why he’s one of the all-time greats."
Nash said it was natural for Durant to focus on offense during the past 10 months since he was able to get back on the court during rehab. But he had three blocked shots in the preseason finale at Boston and figures to play a major role in a Nets defense that shows signs of being very aggressive and effective.
"Kevin is capable of being an ‘A’ defender, but I don’t want to overburden him," Nash said. "We want to continue to build his individual defense as he acclimates back to the demands of the NBA. He’s so long and quick that he can cover pretty much anyone to a high level…But I think we have to be patient. We can’t just expect his best out of the gates. We’ve got to give him time to adapt at both ends, but I think more so defensively."