It was never supposed to be quite this hard. Not with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden on the roster. Not with Joe Harris, and a cast of strong support members, along with some tantalizing new rookies.
But despite all the makings of a superteam, the Nets once again were left shorthanded in Wednesday night’s loss to the Nuggets, this time with only nine available players — a fact that meant Nikola Jokic got (by far) the biggest cheers of the night when the lineups were announced at Barclays Center.
The Nets are trying to adjust to this new reality, and on Wednesday did a decent enough job before a defensive collapse in the third quarter and a few pivotal mistakes in the final few minutes of play cost them the game. But lingering questions about all of the Big 3 are creating murky waters — waters that Steve Nash and the rest are trying to navigate with aplomb and optimism, but that nonetheless cast questions on the future.
"I think for me as coach, for us as coaches, we stay with what we do," Nash said. "We still try to prepare the team. We still try to create the element and improvements and have a growth mindset for our squad. The goal is to continue to move this thing forward. Win or lose are we learning more about ourselves, more about each other and refining our details. If we do, when we get bodies back we’ll be in a better place for it. We’ll have learned something about ourselves and we’ll be able to say that this time was not wasted."
But though the Nets are still in a fine position — fourth in the East going into Thursday’s off day — they’ve lost three in a row and, most important, need to prove that everything actually will be OK by the time the playoffs come around.
For one, it seems highly unlikely that Irving gets vaccinated, and unless mandates lift in New York, it means he’ll be a non-factor in home games, playoffs included. The Nets dropped to 12-13 at home, compared with 17-6 on the road, and they’re the only one of the top 10 teams in each conference to have a sub-.500 home record. Nash said Wednesday night that Durant, who was set to miss four to six weeks with an MCL sprain, will be reevaluated next week. As expected, Durant was selected as a starter for the All-Star Game, as well as being named Eastern Conference captain. This comes on the heels of a Yahoo! Sports report that Durant will miss the Feb. 20 All-Star Game for the second year in a row and will likely need time after that to recover.
Then there’s Harden.
Though reports say the Nets are not pursuing trade opportunities, he’s recently been dogged by rumors that he’s unhappy in Brooklyn and will seek to explore free agency. On Tuesday, Harden mostly refuted the rumors but did acknowledge his frustration. The Big 3 have only played three games together this season, and Harden, who sometimes has been the only superstar on the floor, has had to tweak his game to become more of a facilitator in Irving’s absence. Meanwhile, Harris suffered a setback in his return from ankle surgery, though Nash won’t say (or doesn’t quite know) how much more time that will tack onto his rehab.
All of this isn’t to say there haven’t been bright spots. Bench players and the rookie contingent have stepped up when needed, and, in a consistent effort to look at the positive, many of the Nets have said that this is teaching them tools they can use when all the pieces finally come together.
"I thought tonight we had a lot more carryover from [watching the] film and everything that we’ve been talking about and trying to get better than previous games," Patty Mills said Wednesday. "It was good to know that we’re trying to get on a path here of playing the right way and doing the little things we’ve been preaching the whole season . . . Everyone made an impact, the guys that are out there."
Now, they just have to hope that the guys who weren’t out there can make the picture whole.