With Kevin Durant sidelined until Friday because of NBA health and safety protocols and Kyrie Irving facing the prospect of dealing with an injured right index finger for the foreseeable future, Nets coach Steve Nash must navigate a daunting obstacle course in his first season as a head coach.
The most difficult task he faces is trying to build a championship-caliber defense with an offense-oriented cast of superstars that also includes James Harden.
After watching the Buccaneers’ tough defense hold the high-powered Chiefs offense without a touchdown to easily win Super Bowl LV, that underlined the priority for Nash.
"We know right now we’re not defending well enough," Nash said after Monday’s practice before heading to Detroit for a game against the Pistons on Tuesday night.
"We know that we have a long way to go before we will defend well enough. It’s a priority. It’s tricky. We’re not a defensive team. We’re new to each other. We’ve had all this stopping and starting, very few minutes between our Big 3 relative to how many games we’ve played . . . In the NBA, I think solid defense and a great net rating is where it’s at, but you can’t be poor defensively."
The Nets (14-10) are on a two-game losing streak and have allowed their opponents to score at least 120 points in 10 of their past 11 games, yielding an average of 124.8 points while going 6-5. But reinforcements are on the way.
First, Irving is likely to be back in the lineup in Detroit after sitting out Saturday’s loss in Philadelphia. "Ky’s index finger is improving," Nash said. "It’s the type of thing that sometimes doesn’t go away in the season, but it is manageable. We’ll see what level he’s able to attain as far as the pain and inflammation, but I think right now it is in the manageable camp and he can play [against the Pistons]. "
On another front, the Nets filled their final roster spot when they announced the signing on Monday of 6-10 free-agent forward/center Noah Vonleh, who will be available to play Tuesday night. They previously signed free-agent big man Norvel Pelle, who made his Nets debut Saturday against the 76ers, but free-agent swingman Iman Shumpert (left hamstring strain) was ruled out against the Pistons. All three eventually should help the defense.
"I felt for Norvel," Nash said of the big man’s 17-minute stint in which he blocked three shots. "I think his lungs were burning a little bit in Philly, but at the same time, we’ve kind of got to get him going."
Another big man who could help is 6-11 forward/center Nic Claxton, who has missed the entire season with right knee tendinopathy but was allowed to resume practice on Monday.
"Nic is progressing," Nash said. "He’s not quite with the ‘stay ready’ group, but he did play with some coaches today. There’s progress and what seems like some momentum and some light at the end of the tunnel. I would say it’s probably a good three weeks before he plays an NBA game. Still a moving target, but positive signs for sure."