Talent is not the problem for the superstar-laden Nets.
But the losses on Sunday and Tuesday at Milwaukee did show that, at least in part, experience remains important and continuity matters. Most of the Bucks’ core has been together for several years now. And that familiarity was evident in the fourth quarter of the two contests, when the Bucks found a way to win and move to within one game in the loss-column behind the Nets for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve got a gap to make up here,” Nets coach Steve Nash conceded. “We understand that’s a team that’s been running the same offense, been playing together, same schemes on defense for years now, gone deep into the playoffs. And that’s something that we don’t have, so how can we make up that gap.
“That’s kind of our life in a nutshell heading home here.”
The clock is ticking. Only six regular-season games remain, and the Nets still aren’t whole — and they may not be this regular season.
James Harden has been out since April 5 with a right hamstring strain, and is only now starting to work out after suffering a setback the third week of April. The Big 3 — Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — have shared the court just seven times since Harden was acquired on Jan. 13. Blake Griffin, signed in early March, has yet to play with all three of them. Key reserve forward Nic Claxton returned on Tuesday after missing the previous eight games while on the COVID-19 health and safety protocols list.
“Our gap for our team is that we don’t have a common history,” Nash said. “We’re brand new. Everything’s new. We changed teams more or less a number of times. We got a gap to make up as far as our understanding of one another.”
The playoffs aren’t supposed to be a time to get to know each other, for teammates to really understand each other’s games — their tendencies — but the Nets may not have another choice. As Nash said, there is a gap to be made up, and very few games to do so.
“That is a huge factor,” Durant said. “Continuity is a big thing in this league.”
Nevertheless, Durant said he believes the Nets are a connected group and the large number of veterans on the team lessens the importance of the lack of time they have spent together on the court.
New teams have won titles together in their first season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis won a championship their first season with the Lakers last year. Durant won a title in his first year with the Warriors. The key players on those teams had a full season to get acquainted.
Even so, when Harden has played, the Nets have been one of the very best teams in the NBA, going 27-7 with him and 9-10 without him. He was an MVP candidate before suffering the hamstring injury. The two losses in Milwaukee might have had different results with Harden in the lineup. When the Nets lost by six to the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers recently, they were playing without Harden and Durant.
“For us, we have the luxury of talent but we don’t have the luxury of time,” Nash said. “That’s OK. We understand that and we’ll work around that.”
They don’t have much time to do that. Soon, the playoffs will be here, and that lack of experience could become a shortcoming.