The remaining NBA regular-season schedule is a bear for the top three contenders in the Eastern Conference, but especially for the Nets, who are clinging to first place a half-game ahead of the 76ers and 3 1/2 games ahead of the Bucks. Don’t think the Nets aren’t counting the days.
When asked about the five-game trip the begins with two games in Milwaukee against the Bucks on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night, Kyrie Irving said, "We’ve been tested a few times this year, but I think this road trip means a little bit more because it is toward the end of the season and we just want to play well and do the right things. Just excited to continue to build while we kiss our families goodbye for the next 11 days and we just have fun being tighter as a group."
Irving’s count began on Saturday when the Nets actually flew to Milwaukee, and in truth, he could have called it a 12-day trip because they won’t arrive home from the final game in Chicago until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, May 12, knowing they have to play a home game later that night against the Spurs.
The Nets (43-21) have the fewest games left among the top East contenders with eight. But their home loss to the Trail Blazers Friday night came on the back end of three-back-to-back sets in the final 10 games. Of their final eight games, they play only three more at home, have two more back-to-backs and they face five teams in playoff position, including four in the top six and one play-in contender.
The second-place 76ers (42-21) play nine more games, including four at home, have three back-to-back sets but will see only three potential playoff teams that all are in the play-in category. The third-place Bucks (39-24) play nine more games, including six at home, have three back-to-back sets and will see five teams in playoff position, but their two games against the Nets are their only ones against a top-six team.
In a sense, the Nets’ road trip provides a great chance for playoff preparation. After the two Bucks games, they travel to face the Mavericks, who are sixth in the West, and then to face the Nuggets, who are fourth in the West, before finishing against the Bulls. None of the first four games is part of a back-to-back, and the Nets have two days off before playing the Bulls in the first game of a back-to-back.
That means Irving and Kevin Durant are not likely to miss the first four games for load management. Speaking of the two-game set against the Bucks, Irving said, "It’s the only time we’ll have a chance to see a team twice. [They] could be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference alongside us, and that is a competitor’s dream . . . We know they’ve been playing well. So we’re just looking forward to going in there."
Nets coach Steve Nash said he anticipated that everyone on the roster, including players who are injured or in medical protocols, would accompany the Nets on the trip. He expects Bruce Brown (right knee soreness) to return against the Bucks, along with Durant, who sat out the Blazers loss to rest.
"It’s a great opportunity for us to play a terrific team, a team that could very well be there at the end in the East and to measure ourselves and see how far we’ve come," Nash said of the two-game set against the Bucks.
"We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, so to have these types of games and challenges — and we’ve got a few of them left for sure — it’s great for us. Great for gauging where we’re at and what we need to improve on."
The top three teams in the East all have a shot at the No. 1 seed, but while Nash wasn’t trying to downplay the importance of that, he prefers the game-at-a-time approach. If nothing else, the five-game trip affords plenty of bonding time for the Nets.
"We’re just having fun," Irving said. "We’re enjoying the journey. Wherever we land, we’ll be proud . . . Playing in these different environments on the road is exciting, but just getting tighter as a group throughout some of these games where we’ll learn a lot is what I’m looking forward to."