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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Steve Nash and Kevin Durant's strong bond a main factor why he's new coach of Nets

Kyrie Irving, left, and Kevin Durant of the

Kyrie Irving, left, and Kevin Durant of the Nets talk on the bench during an NBA game against the Rockets at Barclays Center on Nov. 1, 2019. Credit: Steven Ryan

From his decision to leave Oklahoma City, a place where he was hailed as a hero on and off the court, to his equally puzzling decision to leave perennial contender Golden State, there has always been a struggle to understand Kevin Durant.

And in that, maybe there is an explanation for why Steve Nash will be coaching the Nets.

The Nets shocked the basketball world last summer when they landed Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Durant never took the court for the Nets this season and Irving played only 20 games. Coach Kenny Atkinson was let go just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, and interim coach Jacque Vaughn oversaw a depleted roster through an early playoff exit.

Hiring someone to get the most out of the stars — and fit a team around them — was crucial for the organization, with a short window to get it done.

“Frankly, we’re just all excited,” Nash said in an interview with ESPN’s The Undefeated on Thursday. “It’s that honeymoon period. We are all thrilled we get a chance to do this and do this together. Shortly, we will get to work. Unfortunately, it won’t be necessarily on the court with the guys. But in terms of doing work behind the scenes, we will continue to build our culture.”

Nash, like Jason Kidd before him in Brooklyn, is looked at as a coach with an understanding of leadership from his playing history as a point guard — an understanding that the Nets hope will help him get through to Irving. But for Nash, the real key might be his long relationship with Durant, first as a player and then as a player development consultant with Golden State.

In an interview last year with The Ringer after Durant’s departure from Golden State, Nash said, “Kevin’s a thoughtful — I don’t want to say complicated — sophisticated, he’s continually pushing himself and searching for whatever it is that’s out there that’s going to fulfill him and excite him. I think maybe that part of it was underestimated that he would leave in three years, because that’s what led him there in the first place.

“He wanted something higher, bigger [when he left OKC for Golden State]. He wanted to experience something different where he would be pushed in new ways, and it’s kind of the same thing that’s happening now.”

It happened, and now Nash is reunited with him, tasked with getting him on the court and making it work.

Voice of reason

With the Milwaukee Bucks in a hole in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat, there has been criticism pointed at coach Mike Budenholzer for not adjusting by utilizing Giannis Antetokounmpo to guard Jimmy Butler.

It’s understandable that Antetokounmpo might have been looked to in an attempt to slow down Butler in Game 1 of the series as he scored 40 points. After all, Antetokounmpo was just named as the Defensive Player of the Year, and his size can give any scorer trouble. But let’s remember that Budenholzer is a two-time Coach of the Year winner and finished second in this year’s balloting.

Perhaps the best explanation for the strategy came from Butler before he was held to 13 points in Game 2.

“Uh, no. I’m not surprised,” Butler said in an interview with The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “I look at it like this. He is one of the best help-side defenders that there are in the league. And that’s what he’s been doing all year long. And I think you can’t get stuck on what we do. I think you’ve really just got to focus on what you do — you’ve been doing it all year. Nah, I’m not surprised.

“If he switches out . . . and he’s guarding me, you know we’re going to do what we have to do to still win. But I’m gonna tell you: You’re not going to be able to leave me, so then that’s taking away their weak-side defense. So either way it goes, we’re gonna be in a good spot. We’ve got way more guys who can do what I just did last night better than I can do, so we’ll see.”

While Wes Matthews and Khris Middleton did a job on Butler in Game 2 and Matthews defended him well on the final play, it was Antetokounmpo who came over to help and committed a foul as time expired to put Butler on the line for the game-winning free throws. Butler scored 30 points Friday night as the Heat took a stunning 3-0 series lead.

Staff set

The Knicks finally made their coaching staff hires official Friday, waiting until after the Utah Jazz were eliminated and Johnny Bryant had completed his season there to introduce the new faces. Bryant will serve as associate head coach.

The Knicks also announced that Mike Woodson and Andy Greer — both of whom have a Knicks history — will join Tom Thibodeau’s staff as assistants and that Daisuke Yoshimoto will serve as assistant to the head coach.

The team is expected to add more coaches. Greer’s brother Larry, who was with Thibodeau in Minnesota in 2018-19 and was on Monty Williams’ staff in Phoenix this season, could be one of the new faces. He previously worked with Portland and Oklahoma City, mostly in advance scouting, and also spent three seasons at Arizona State University as an assistant coach.

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