After going through a franchise-record 35 different starting lineups through their first 67 games, the Nets stumbled into the final week of the regular season riding a season-worst four-game losing streak prior to their game against the Nuggets Saturday night in Denver. Despite the presence of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the last three of those losing efforts, it’s looking as though it will take the return of injured James Harden to revive their faltering NBA title hopes.
When he spoke to the media on Thursday, Harden described himself as "very confident" that he will be back for the postseason, and he added the plan is for him to play a couple games prior to the postseason. It can’t come a minute too soon because the Nets are 27-7 when Harden plays and were 9-11 when he doesn’t prior to facing the Nuggets.
"Well clearly, James is an amazing player," Nets coach Steve Nash said after Thursday’s loss in Dallas. "He means a lot to this team. We’ve had a lot of success with him before. He’ll improve us immediately in a lot of ways, he’ll cover up a lot of holes.
"But we still don’t have that common experience. We need to grow and learn and play together. That may not be enough, but it is what it is, and we’ve got to come together as quickly as possible."
Nash repeatedly has harped on the theme of how the Nets lack the corporate knowledge that comes with working together consistently over a significant period of time. The Big 3 of Durant, Irving and Harden has played just seven games together. Despite the fact they represent one of the most talented collections of high-end talent in NBA history, their Achilles heel for the playoffs might be the lack of shared experience.
Yet, the Nets are as close as they have been all season in terms of being whole. Harden represents the last piece of the playoff puzzle. As Nash sees it, their recent struggles actually have provided good playoff preparation.
"We’re playing high quality teams that want to win for playoff seeding," Nash said of the five-game trip that ends Tuesday in Chicago. "These are a little bit of a dress rehearsal when you're playing playoff teams, teams that need wins that are really coming out to try to win these games and play at a high level. The adversity is good for us. We're going to face adversity in the playoffs."
Durant has played amazingly well when healthy but lately has struggled in a shooting slump. It happens, and elite players come out of it. He refused to blame all the lineup changes the Nets have endured.
"It’s on us as players to go out there and be professional," Durant said. "We might not be as comfortable as you’re used to when it comes to different lineups and being in and out of it, but we’re pros and we get paid to adapt. That’s not an excuse for us."
Irving generally shares Durant’s hard-nosed attitude, and he laughed when it was suggested the Nets face a daunting task in terms of adjusting to all the lineup changes.
"It’s been an adjustment for us to learn one another on the fly, 35 games with different lineups," Irving admitted. "But we’re really just focused on our health first, and we want to get guys prepared for whatever the next stage, the main stage, looks like when things matter and it’s win or go home.
"You just want to be as healthy as possible, and then, you get hot at a certain point . . . Right now, it’s good that we’re being tested. It hasn’t been daunting."
Irving said now is the time for the Nets all to reflect and look deep within to ask how they can make the collective team better because reality is they must adjust on the fly. Veteran Joe Harris agreed their faltering finishing stretch might serve as a catalyst to coalesce at the right time.
"Hopefully, it will tighten up the group, bring us a little bit closer together," Harris said. "When you go through difficult times, I think that’s when you create this bond you wouldn’t otherwise have. For us to have this now, yeah, it’s tough, but at the same time, we still have five games to get ourselves right."