Despite acquiring "third star" James Harden one month ago to form an All-Star triumvirate with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets have traveled a bumpy road since then. Irving was on a personal leave of absence at the time, Durant was just coming off one COVID-19 quarantine and since has undergone a second quarantine that ended Friday.
The Nets’ Big 3 played their seventh game together as a unit Saturday night at Golden State to begin a five-game West Coast road trip that figured to be their toughest test of the season, and they didn’t have starting center DeAndre Jordan, who missed the game for personal reasons. Counting Golden State, the Nets had just 10 games left before the All-Star break in March, and they still are searching for answers.
The good thing is they have played their best against the top teams, and they are facing four teams with winning records plus a quality Kings team that slipped one game below .500 with a loss on Friday night.
"We seem to get up and play better against the better teams," coach Steve Nash said before the Nets departed on their cross-country trek. "The West Coast definitely will challenge us. All these teams [also including the Suns, Lakers and Clippers] are very good. I hope we match the level that is asked of us and play to our level.
"The idea is to win games, but the big picture is: Are we getting better? Are we putting ourselves in position to be a more formidable team down the road? That’s the No. 1 priority for me over wins and losses. We’ve got so many guys that have been in and out of the lineup, so we’re still in our infancy as far as trying to jell and put this group together."
The Nets recently snapped a three-game losing streak that was their worst of the season with a win over the Pacers on Wednesday in their best defensive performance of the season. Durant said his time off allowed him to focus on what the Nets have to work on most.
"Just being on the same page to start games on the defensive side," Durant said. Pointing to the final game of their recent losing streak, he added, "I watched the Detroit game, and we were down 14 points at the end of the first quarter. No matter who we’re playing against, that’s a big deficit. We just want to start off games with intensity and keep building from there."
Long road trips offer an opportunity to build an off-the-court bond that translates to better performance on the court, and that is especially true in the midst of a pandemic when everyone is stressed by the need to observe strict NBA health and safety protocols.
"With the bus rides, plane rides, being in the locker room with these guys, I feel like we still are in a ‘bubble’ no matter what," Durant said. "I think we’re building that chemistry and getting to know each other on a personal level.
"Obviously, being out and going out to dinners and being able to hang out in public together definitely would help, but I still think we’re getting a lot of team bonding and building as we’re going through the season. It’s about executing what we need to do on both ends of the floor, staying on one page, and I think we’re trending in the right direction."
The Nets have made no secret of their championship aspirations, and it’s obvious they have one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. But the win over the Pacers showed the importance of communication and what Nash describes as "connectivity" on defense to their long-term success.
The coach said the Nets are a quiet team, so this road trip comes at a great point in the season because it might help to galvanize them. "In the old days, we bonded by going out to dinner together, going to a bar," Hall of Famer Nash said of his playing days. "You can’t do that in COVID. It’s not a normal world.
"It’s a challenge for us being a new group, new [coaching] staff, the changes, the trade, COVID. We just haven’t had a clean runway. In the good, old days, I would have put my credit card behind the bar and told the guys to go out and have a good time, but that ain’t happening in COVID. So we’ll have to find creative ways to grow and find that bond."