Heading into the Nets’ game against the defending champion Lakers Saturday night at Barclays Center, health was a major issue facing both teams approaching the final five weeks of the regular season.
The Lakers (32-20) were without superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the Nets (36-16) were without one of their superstars, James Harden, for up to two more weeks while he rehabs a strained right hamstring. Harden was a dominant factor for the Nets when they defeated the Lakers and James on Feb. 18 during a 5-0 West Coast road trip that was near the start of the current 22-4 span that lifted the Nets to first place in the Eastern Conference.
Following the Nets’ morning shootaround on Saturday, Joe Harris admitted the injuries took a little luster off the rematch. "You want to play against people at their best, and tonight, certainly is no different," Harris said. "But you can say the same for us too. We wish that we had a completely healthy roster, going against their completely healthy roster. But this is sort of the state of a lot of teams right now, late in the season."
Even without James and Davis, the Lakers have the top-ranked defense in the NBA, and they recently added free-agent center Andre Drummond who is a formidable presence in the paint and always has been tough for the Nets to handle at both ends of the floor. This was the second game back from injury for Kevin Durant, who was not expected to start for the second straight game because he is on a playing-time restriction and coach Steve Nash is trying to keep him available for late-game situations.
"They seem to have a good feel and sense for one another on the defensive end, but then they're all just very active, athletic, they close gaps quickly, they contest a lot of shots, and then they force a lot of turnovers," Harris said of the Lakers. "Obviously, they don't have LeBron and AD, but they still are a difficult matchup. We don't want them to speed us up, turn us over."
The Nets now are one game clear of the second-place 76ers, who lost on Friday and were scheduled to play the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday at Oklahoma City. But Harris said the Nets aren’t especially focused on earning the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference at this point in the season.
"We’re all aware of the standings, but I don’t think anyone is looking ahead or looking past games," Harris said. "We still want to win every single game. It’s not like we circle a game on the calendar in particular. I think every game has the same amount of importance. But we’re definitely aware of the standings, and it’s important to us."
Despite the absence of Harden, the Nets figured to get a boost on the injury front with the return of Landry Shamet from and ankle sprain that caused him to miss five of the previous seven games. Over his previous nine games, Shamet shot 50.0% from three-point range (24 of 48), and he hopes to maintain that momentum.
"I feel confident," Shamet said. "I feel really good, and I’m excited to return. I’m not too worried about it. Just come in and keep shooting. Don’t pass up open looks, be aggressive, play free. That’s my whole approach."
Despite the Nets’ injuries, Shamet expressed confidence in their ability to develop chemistry once Harden returns and they are playing with a full deck. "We’re playing a good brand of basketball right now, and everybody knows that," Shamet said. "Once all the bodies come back into play, I don’t think it should take that long."