The Nets were placed firmly on the fast track to a championship-caliber team when they acquired James Harden a little more than a week ago — rounding out a Big 3 that makes them a powerful offensive juggernaut this season.
But even with all that, the last few days have taught them a telling lesson: Despite all that talent, the Nets will have to go slow before they can speed up and live up to their potential.
Their two losses to the Cavaliers on Wednesday and Friday more than highlighted the defensive inefficiencies capable of sinking this super-team. They gave up 147 points Wednesday (including 34 in the two overtimes) and 125 Friday, when they rested Kevin Durant. After Friday, they were ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency and 27th in points allowed.
They beat the Heat, 128-124, on Saturday night, but Bam Adebayo scored 41 points for Miami and the Nets allowed 42 fourth-quarter points.
Steve Nash has said it’s an issue of taking pride in their defense, and of hustle, but he also acknowledged that his team simply hasn’t had the time necessary to jell. One of his solutions? Patience.
"This is going to be a season where it’s going to be funky," he said after Friday's 125-113 loss. "It’s not going to be your normal growth and progression. I think we’ve played more games than any team in the league and had less practice time and we’re a new group and have had a lot thrown at us."
He said something similar before Friday's game: "It’s something that's going to take time [and] I don't know that we can fix that in a couple weeks."
The Nets (10-8) indeed have played the most games in the NBA. Practice time has been at a premium. Coupled with adding Harden and losing defensive stalwart Jarrett Allen in the trade, growing pains were sure to come.
Kyrie Irving also was missing for two weeks — first for personal reasons and then for violating COVID-19 protocol.
The result is a team that will need to learn on the fly. Thanks to the lack of practice time, that ugly refinement process will have to take place against other teams.
It’s not just about "flipping a switch," Irving said. "We’ve got to take these games and take them as seriously as we can in terms of learning. We can’t use our experience. We’ve just really got to take the time to zero in on what we want to accomplish."
They might get some relief in the impending signing of Norvel Pelle, a big man and rim protector who can take some of the pressure off the Nets’ only true center, DeAndre Jordan. But a change in personnel — especially in the form of a player with only 24 NBA games to his name — isn’t going to be a miracle balm.
"We need to come out with defense on our mind and maybe that has to be our identity," Jordan said shortly after the Nets were outrebounded by the Cavs 50-29. "Now that we have a full team, everybody’s here, we have to build off that. We can’t get too down on ourselves or panic early, even though a lot of people want us to panic. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Championship teams aren’t built in a day. They have to go through struggles and so we’ve got to be able to take this on the chin and learn from it."
And though their defensive numbers are ugly, the improvement doesn’t have to be huge for the Nets to thrive. They entered Saturday second in the league in points scored, averaging 119.8, and that average went up.
"We’ll just take our time," Irving said. "We know what the outside world expects of us … [We have to] figure it out, figure it out — use these games as time to establish things that we want to get better at. Practice time is very limited, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do."