A thrill ride of a Nets season that began with the hiring of Hall of Famer Steve Nash as a first-time coach, the return to action of Kevin Durant, a blockbuster trade for James Harden, the signing of free-agent Blake Griffin and the greatest season of Kyrie Irving’s career, but a season that was marred by a series of injuries that led to a franchise-record 37 different starting lineups, finally has reached proving time in the playoffs.
The Nets (48-24) earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they enter as the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the NBA title not only because of the star power they have assembled but also because they are as healthy as they have been all season.
Although they finished on a five-game win streak, the Big 3 of Durant, Irving and Harden still have played only eight games together. Durant discounted the notion they have any momentum entering their first-round matchup with the winner of Tuesday night’s play-in game between the No. 7 Celtics and the No. 8 Wizards.
"Whatever we did so far is out the window," Durant said after the Nets clinched the No. 2 spot with a win over the Cavaliers Sunday night. "We obviously have principles and a foundation we want to build on, but it’s a new season for us and I think that’s the mentality we all will have.
"We did some solid things throughout the regular season, but we just want to realize that the regular season is over and it’s a new vibe for us. I’m looking forward to the preparation we go through, just the whole journey."
Navigating all the obstacles associated with the condensed 72-game schedule, COVID-19 medical protocols and their raft of injuries was a monumental task for Nash. The Nets still have minor physical issues — Harden sat out the Cavaliers game as a precaution and NBA three-point percentage leader Joe Harris is nursing a sore hip — but all their big guns should be available when the playoffs begin Saturday or Sunday.
"It’s great," Nash said. "The big goal for us this year was to try and be as healthy as possible by the end of the year and keep everyone on the same page and excited about what we’re doing. So mission accomplished there.
"We have a week to prepare and the level is going to rise up, and we’ve got to rise to the occasion and be ready to go."
Because of all their injuries, the Nets’ top stars have not shared consistent time on the court together, which might leave them vulnerable. But the NBA’s deepest, best-shooting supporting cast benefited from being called upon to play larger regular-season roles. The challenge is to put the pieces of the puzzle together in the coming week of practice.
"I think it’s obviously good to have everybody healthy and guys being in rhythm at this point," Durant said. "That’s one thing we can use and we can hang our hats on is knowing that we understand that intensity of each possession.
"It’s on us to go out there and execute. I’m looking forward to the preparation, the next few days of practice and seeing who we play, and then, we can move on from there."
Durant won two NBA titles with Golden State, but he deflected the question when asked if the Nets have what it takes to win it all.
"I look at it like we’ve got a lot of talent on this roster, we play together, we play hard, and we’re healthy right now," Durant said. "If we come out and play desperate basketball and smart basketball to start, we put ourselves in good shape. But you never know what’ll happen, man."