TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Nets try to balance health and playoff position as regular season winds down

Nets guard James Harden sits on the bench

Nets guard James Harden sits on the bench during the first half of an NBA game against the Hornets at Barclays Center on April 16. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

They have a mere 16 games left in the regular season to pull it together, and so far, we only have seen flashes of the Nets’ so-called "superteam." The Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden have been on court together for just seven games, so that begs an important question as they head into their run to the playoffs.

Is it vital to win the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, which means they would avoid either the 76ers or the third-place Bucks in the conference semifinals, or is it more important simply to focus on getting the roster as healthy as possible for Game 1 of the first round in mid-May?

The Nets played without Durant and Harden during their loss last Wednesday in Philadelphia that gave the 76ers (39-17) the postseason tiebreaker because they won the season series, 2-1. They currently hold a one-game lead over the Nets (38-18), who are headed into their most difficult stretch of the season with 10 of the next 13 games on the road, starting Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Asked how much emphasis the Nets are placing on earning the No. 1 seed, Durant said, "Obviously, we want to win every game and want to play great basketball every time out, but it’s not an emphasis to us. We’re not coming in with the No. 1 seed circled on the whiteboard.

 

"I think we want to stay healthy. Offensively and defensively, we’re trying to find that groove we were in and get everybody back and we’ll be fine. But we also definitely want to win games."

Durant and coach Steve Nash clearly are on the same page when it comes to the Nets’ priorities. This is the time of season when it feels as if each win is more critical and coaches tend to tighten their playing rotations.

"I actually look at it as the opposite," Nash said. "I don’t want to tighten the rotations, I want to expand it if I can. I feel like this is the time of year to try to get to the finish line as whole as possible, make sure we try to limit exposure and whatever that may entail.

"It’s been tough. The schedule has been demanding, it has been so congested, and when we get to the end here, I don’t think it’s ideal to tighten the rotation. We know that’s likely to happen in the playoffs. Before then, I think it’s important that we try to navigate the schedule."

Now that LaMarcus Aldridge (irregular heartbeat) has decided to retire, the two main figures remaining on the injured list are Harden (strained right hamstring) and backup guard Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness). Nash said Harden will accompany the Nets on their three-game trip to face the Heat, Pelicans and Raptors because he can get the high-intensity workouts he needs to complete rehab, not necessarily because he’s ready to return.

One other possibility to return for the Nets is guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who underwent surgery to repair a partially torn ACL after the third game of the season in December. General manager Sean Marks expects Dinwiddie to return from Los Angeles, where he has been working out, and rejoin the Nets. While Dinwiddie’s long-term health is the priority, Marks said he never would count Dinwiddie out if his goal is to get back for the playoffs.

In the meantime, all the injuries and roster juggling have allowed the Nets to develop depth among their role players. It showed in Philadelphia when the starters were rested after falling 22 points behind early in the fourth quarter. The second unit came in, cut the deficit to three and forced the 76ers to put their starters back in the game. Irving, who was on the bench with 37 points, took that as a good sign when asked if the Nets learned anything valuable from the loss.

"I don’t know if we played a fully healthy game against one another, so I think that’s yet to be seen," Irving said. "‘To be determined’ in terms of seeing that for both teams healthy. Both teams have been pretty consistent on the road and being at home and taking care of business. We’ll see each other down the line, hopefully."

In fact, Durant missed all three games against the 76ers, the Nets’ one win came without any of the Big 3, and Harden and Irving are 0-1 in separate losses in the series. So the Nets feel pretty good about their chances no matter what playoff seed they hold.

Blake Griffin, who sat out Wednesday’s loss in Philadelphia because it was the second game of a back-to-back, said, "I would say we’re up for the challenge…As long as we have that common idea of who we want to be and our identity, then that’s what we’re really going to lock in and work toward these next 16 games or so."

New York Sports