PORTLAND, Ore. — The Nets began their longest road trip of the season against the Trail Blazers on Friday night at Moda Center, a journey that takes them to five cities in three time zones over the course of 11 days.
Considering how much the Nets (3-4) have struggled to get on the same page with each other at the start of the Kyrie Irving era, it’s the kind of tough trip — including games in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver and Chicago — that either could bring them together or leave them in a tailspin.
According to coach Kenny Atkinson, Irving spoke to the team about the challenge that lies ahead before they left for the cross-country flight to Portland on Thursday.
“Kyrie talked to the guys,” Atkinson said. “It was great. It’s almost like a perfect moment for this road trip for us. Team bonding, team chemistry. We have a little adversity with DeAndre (Jordan, sprained ankle) out. We’ll be together a lot. We’ll be breaking bread a lot. We’ll be having coffee together and team meetings. There’s nothing like that.”
It’s a coach’s dream to have what amounts to a captive audience for the next week and a half. Atkinson said it’s a good time to pull individual players aside for longer video sessions because he doesn’t feel as if he is taking them away from family time. And he likes to dine with his players and get to know them better as people.
“We’re trying to get on the same page on the court, but I think off the court, it will help. It’s a tough schedule, too. However we come out of it, we’re going to be better for it. I’d rather have it now than in March or April.”
Although the Blazers (3-5) are dealing with their own slow start, they are considered a top Western Conference contender, and the backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is one of the best in the league. Caris LeVert said that pair poses as much of a mental challenge for him and Irving as a physical one.
“I think it will be a good test for our team for sure,” LeVert said. “Obviously, they have a great guard tandem. Just going to try and make it tough for them at all times. Make their catches tough, shots contested.”
Speaking more generally of the trip, LeVert added: “It’s going to be fun. The more time we spend together, the more chemistry we get on and off the court. This is a great group of guys.”
The Nets spent the previous two practice days working on cutting down their turnovers and improving their defense. It might be surprising, but the time they spend bonding off the court has as much of a positive effect as practice.
“You get to this junction in the season where you take an 11-day trip, you’re playing a few games, but the majority of the time is just spent together in these cities,” Joe Harris said. “It’s a lot of time together, whether it’s going to movies, having dinner together, hanging out. Even on the flights themselves, we have a five-hour flight to Portland. It’s a lot of time together where you sort of build that chemistry, that continuity together.
“The fortunate thing about this team and this organization in general is that we just enjoy each other’s company.”
Taurean Prince, a fourth-year veteran who is one of the Nets’ newcomers adjusting to different surroundings, might have summed it up best. “I love playing away,” Prince said. “That’s a great time to gain camaraderie as a team, a great time to figure out who we really are when it’s just us in the building. I think road games make teams stronger.”