The Nets have long been hopeful they’d enter the home stretch of the regular season with a gloriously healthy roster, their eyes focused on forging chemistry late and playing to the best of their ability when the games count when the ball goes up in the post-season.
No such luck.
Brooklyn has entered the home stretch with a shallow roster and a lengthy injury report with 13 games remaining. Still ... as they deal with injuries with different timetables while banking on emerging play from the “stay-ready group” to keep the ship afloat, the Nets are still winning. They’re tied with the 76ers and two and a half ahead of the Bucks.
So far, so good.
But a tricky balance has emerged for Brooklyn in the chase for the top seed in the East. To Steve Nash, finishing as the No. 1 seed is on the Nets' radar but he is taking a different approach, prioritizing health over seeding at the tail-end of a truncated NBA season.
“Do we want to finish first in the East? Yes, but not at the expense of skipping steps or mismanaging players and their loads,” Nash said Sunday. “It’s a tricky balance we’re trying to strike right now.”
His players are on the same page. Blake Griffin, who played in his first back-to-back since joining the Nets Wednesday, said ending up as the top seed is, of course, a goal but he foresees bigger goals that can turn into reality with a healthy roster come playoffs.
“Anytime you could lock up a No. 1 seed, it’s a good thing. It’s not out of our reach,” Griffin said. “It’s not the end all be all either. We’re going to be smart. We’re not going to force guys to play and play injured. We want guys healthy for the playoffs. So that’s the goal. There are bigger goals along with that as well.”
Brooklyn missed their latest chance to secure the top seed, falling to the Raptors Wednesday. Luckily for the Nets, Philadelphia’s hopes of growing their lead to a 1.5 failed, coming up short against the second seed Phoenix Suns in a thriller the same night. Then, they lost again, their third straight, on Thursday to the resurgent and increasingly disciplined Celtics.
So, how important is the top seed? The top seed comes with home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, a benefit to any team with aspirations of winning a Game 7.
Brooklyn is currently 23-7 at Barclays Center while Philadelphia poses a near identical record at Wells Fargo Center, 22-7. To dive deeper, the Nets are 16-13 on the road while the Sixers nurse a similar discrepancy - 17-13.
Although home-court advantage looks good on paper for both Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the advantage will be limited this postseason due to the league’s health and safety protocols.
There will be no sold-out arenas for the playoffs, which means less of a crowd impact on the postseason contests. The Barclays Center will be allowed to go to 25 percent capacity - from 10 percent - on May 19, just before the playoffs begin, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday. For Philadelphia, the capacity restriction was raised from 15 percent to 20 percent. That of course could change as the playoffs drag on.
Regardless of the limited fan presence rooting for the good guys, trolling the interlopers, the top seed in the East will have a home-court advantage for critical games. They sleep in their own beds, shoot at their own gym. If the Eastern Conference Finals go the full seven, the top seed will be hosting the win-or-go-home contest. In the postseason, the home team has won nearly 65 percent of all such games since 1984.
If you want to dive deeper into the history books, the last time the Nets entered the playoffs as the top seed in the East (2000-01), the franchise cruised to the NBA Finals - dropping only five games between the first round, second round and Conference Finals - before being swept by the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the Nets have the goal of securing the No. 1 seed, their health and how healthy will Brooklyn be moving forward remains their biggest obstacle.
Harden’s hamstring setback ruled him out indefinitely and Nash said his setback, in a high-intensity workout he witnessed, took the former MVP “back to square one.” The extended loss of Harden is a huge hit for Brooklyn, who is 27-7 when he plays.
“We’re back to square one, we’ll rehabilitate him and get him back whenever we can,” Nash said. “Who knows when that’ll be, but we’ll support James and we’ll support our performance team in getting him back in as best condition as possible and hopefully that comes as soon as possible.”
When Nash was asked when he believes Harden will be back, the Nets head coach said he’s prepared for a possibly lengthy absence.
“He’ll be back when he’s back. That may not be until the playoffs, it might be sooner,” said Nash. “We have no control over that other than working as hard as we can to support him and get him back to full health and being able to play again. We’re prepared for whenever when that may be.”
On the bright side, nature is healing in the case of Kevin Durant. Durant, who suffered a left thigh contusion in Sunday’s loss to the Heat, is listed as “questionable” Friday, better than “out.” If he doesn’t play Friday, he should be on the court Sunday against the scorching Suns.
“If he progresses at this rate, I think Friday or Sunday would be very possible,” Nash said.
Outside of the two stars, the Nets backcourt is depleted. Chris Chiozza (fractured third metacarpal, right hand) is likely out till the late first-round of the playoffs. Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness) was initially viewed as a “two-to-three week thing” but instead is nearing its end. He’s “doubtful” for the Celtics game.
“He has been doing some running. He’s definitely been doing rehab and strengthening but I have seen him on the court shooting and running,” Nash said Sunday. “He has not played yet so, not sure if that’s coming this week or not. Depends literally on every day how he responds to his rehab and hyping his amount of mobility and activity. Hopefully, he’ll be back soon.”
Despite the expected signing of Mike James in the “coming days,” per his old team, and the possible return of Spencer Dinwiddie (right knee), there’s no guarantee with so little time left on the clock that either will contribute.
“I think there is a time where he is going to come back to the team but I don’t know when that is to be honest. I know he’s still right in the thick of his rehab. He’s very dedicated, doing all the work and is ahead of schedule. I’m not sure when the date is,” Nash said. “If it’s playoffs, before the playoffs but I know there is the plan for him to come back and be around the guys when he gets the bulk of his rehab done.”
“Being around the guys,” of course, doesn’t mean Dinwiddie will return to play. That’s a whole separate decision. Higher up the Nets totem pole, Sean Marks offered a more measured response on the possibility by saying his primary concern is Dinwiddie’s long-term health but added he’d “never bet against Spencer Dinwiddie.”
“The primary main concern for Spencer is his long-term health. It’s not doing something that’s detrimental to his career and his career longevity. If there’s an opportunity for him to come back and play during the playoffs, we’ll have to evaluate that at the time. These are questions and answers I really couldn’t give right now because we have to see how he progresses over the next month, two months, three months,” Sean Marks said. “The priority here is going to be his long-term health and what happens to Spencer two, three, four years down the road.”
While health won’t necessarily be the sole factor of Brooklyn’s postseason success — all teams are banged up at this point, chemistry may pose another obstacle. How much remains an issue. As anyone with a Nets t-shirt or hoodie can tell you, the “Big Three” has played only seven games — 187 minutes — so far this season and depending on Harden’s recovery, they may not play another second together before May 19. History has shown talent doesn't always secure you a championship but chemistry often separates great teams from championship teams.
In the last few weeks of the season, with one, two or all of the “Big Three” missing, the focus will be about getting better all the way down the bench.
“Our focus is how can we get better. How we can chip away at what we’re trying to accomplish and to get our prior-selfs in the best position to play at the highest level when it really counts,” Nash said.
Brooklyn’s remaining schedule consists of six home games and seven away games. Their season will conclude with a three-game homestand against the Spurs, Bulls and top the regular season with a Jarrett Allen reunion in a matchup with the Cavaliers.
Of course, a Turnpike match-up isn’t a given. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum might have something to say about that, not to mention Julius Randle or Bam Adebayo. Moreover, Philly is also reeling from injuries with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris in and out of the line-up. They’ve lost three straight and face the Bucks again Sunday afternoon.
So, the strategy at this point is “next team up” as well as “next man up.” But there’s something else here. As Rob Mahoney of The Ringer wrote recently, “Brooklyn Has Turned the Regular Season Into Its Laboratory.” Will it work?