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Nets struggling to build a title contender on the fly

Kevin Durant of the Nets looks on during

Kevin Durant of the Nets looks on during the third quarter against the Hawks at Barclays Center on Friday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Six games into the season, the Nets are a disappointing 3-3 after losing three of their past four games before facing the 1-5 Wizards Sunday night at Barclays Center. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, training camp was reduced to two weeks, they played a mere two exhibition games, and the first 37 games of the schedule that have been announced are to be played in a 72-day stretch.

Following the Nets’ loss to the Hawks on Friday, Kevin Durant was asked about the difficulty of putting together a title contender in such difficult circumstances with so little practice time, and he gave that notion the back of his hand. "No excuses," Durant said. "Every team in the league is under the same circumstances."

That might be true in regard to the schedule, but the fact is that it will take time for the Nets to build chemistry and cohesion at both ends of the floor when Durant is coming off an 18-month layoff, Kyrie Irving is coming off a nine-month layoff, the Nets have lost Spencer Dinwiddie to a season-ending knee injury and they are working several new faces into the lineup while changing roles for the core players under a first-year head coach in Steve Nash.

Saturday was a typical off day during this season. The Nets watched film and some players did limited individual work, but it was mostly mental preparation to save the energy they need to defend an electric Wizards backcourt of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook.

Asked if he might make any lineup changes to address defensive problems the Nets demonstrated in a two-game split with the Hawks, Nash said, "We’re always looking to explore rotation changes and different matchups and lineups. It’s such a new season to us. We’re such a new group, played so little basketball together that we’ll probably experiment a lot this year and we’ll probably look at a lot of different lineups."

When it was suggested the Nets’ recent struggles might be due to reasons other than their unfamiliarity with each other, Nash disagreed. "I mean, it is a factor for sure," Nash said. "This team is just so young collectively. We haven’t spent that many days together. So, it’s a process. That’s the best way I can describe it. This is a process that’s going to take the whole year, and hopefully, we’re a real good ballclub at the end of the year."

After analyzing the previous two games against the Hawks, Nash drew a picture of the questions he is addressing. On the defensive end, it’s a matter of improving communication, understanding the principles of when to switch on defense and when to play man-to-man, focusing more on rebounding the ball and then simply getting back in transition to prevent easy baskets.

"Rebounding is going to be a process all year for us," Nash said. "It’s not a natural inclination for our lineups to be strong rebounding lineups, so, we’re going to have to gang rebound. We’re going to have to make some habits and be greedy down there."

Offensively, Nash said the Nets need to get comfortable with specific actions and sets they run and move the ball to force the defense to make tough decisions about how much to focus on covering Durant and Irving when the Nets have so many other capable offensive players.

"Offense wasn’t necessarily a priority going into camp," Nash said. "We only had so much time. The offense could get into more actions and get into them quicker, where everyone could be a threat. Hopefully, they can create space for our two stars, and our stars create space for them. We just have to find that cohesion."

Caris LeVert is one of the core Nets, who has shifted from the starting unit to a sixth man role and still is finding his way while also learning how to close with Durant and Irving. "Offensively, we’re still trying to learn each other," LeVert said. "I think the injury to Spencer kind of hurt us a little bit as well. We got some new lineups, and guys are still trying to settle into their roles. But I think it will come. We have a lot of talent on that end of the floor, and it will all figure itself out to be honest with you."

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