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Nets building chemistry in the home-stretch of the season

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets have multiple elements that solidify the franchise as a championship contender. From raw talent to its translation on the court, They’ve become one of the hottest teams in the NBA, winning with or without their stars.

Then, there’s the intangible. Call it culture, call it chemistry. Whatever, they have it, as defined by player comments —like you be the point guard, I’ll be the shooting guard — to all those hugs before, during and after the game. With all that skill, all that talent, the remaining question (other than health), togetherness or whatever you want to call it is the most important factor that will decide if Brooklyn can cash out on their “one common goal.” It’s a factor Nash and the new-face Nets have embraced.

“I think a lot of first-year teams struggle to compete for a championship, if for no other reason than that collective history and experience,” Steve Nash said. “That’s something we have to accept and overcome.”

Over the course of NBA history, talent can only take you so far, so close to the coveted prize of an NBA championship. Team chemistry is often the element that separates the great teams from the championship teams. Players don’t have to like each other —and the Nets look they do — they have to develop and master chemistry before the games matter most.

“We have work to do. We have to focus, put the time in and make sure we clean up the areas we need to clean up,” Blake Griffin has said. “You’ve seen a lot of talent on teams lose before. That’s not the locker room’s mindset.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Their huge step forward in building that on-court chemistry of course took place last night in Brooklyn. Kevin Durant returned to the court after a 23-game absence and had a perfect game, going for 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 5-of-5 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 from behind the arc in 19 minute. He was on a minutes restriction but no one seemed to notice. He just played. Outside of having a picture-perfect return, to have him under the bright lights is a win in itself. Durant professed no concern about his team’s chemistry despite everything that’s happened over the last year.

“We’ve always been in communication about different sets and different actions when I was on the bench and practices and film room,” Durant said. “We were learning each other throughout that time, and finally getting on the floor, we didn’t have to say much. We know each other’s games and what to do on each play. Guys have been in constant communication, no matter if it’s a game or off day. It helps.”

Nash admitted reintegrating on the fly late in the season is “not ideal” and will be a challenge.

“As far as time and chemistry, it’s not ideal,” Nash said. “At the same time, it’s not a concern that we worry about the things that we can control. When he’s healthy and ready to go is kind of out of our hands; it’s up to when that hamstring is ready.

“So we’re not going to spend a ton of time worrying about the negative ramifications. We’re going to spend time adapting in the interim and excited for when he does return.”

Griffin noted how having Durant back on the floor is “it’s a good step to getting there” in terms of building chemistry. To dive deeper, Wednesday’s game was the first time Durant played with Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Claxton this season. The first two hadn’t been signed yet and Claxton was still rehabbing from his injury when KD went down.

While Durant is back and showing no signs of rust from his absence, the basketball gods forced them to take a step backward. The Nets lost James Harden to a right hamstring strain that’ll require him to miss at least 10 days. Brooklyn also has two of their key role players on the shelf with Tyler Johnson will miss an undisclosed amount of time with right knee soreness while Landry Shamet is day-to-day after re-rolling his right ankle. He’s already missed six games this season to ankle woes.

Durant doesn’t want any of his injured teammates to return to the court until they are “110 percent.” When asked about balancing health with chemistry, Durant credits the veteran makeup and familiarity of the Nets personnel to smooth out that balance but admitted the importance of the team having everyone on the court.

“We got veteran guys that know how to play the game of basketball. We got a coaching staff that most of the guys played (with) and explain the game in simple terms. I think that’ll help us going forward, especially with guys being out,” Durant said. “As far as late in the season, we’ll need everybody on the court to actually see how this stuff works.

“We got a good gauge on how we are as a team. We want these guys - James, Landry, TJ; we want them to be 110 percent when they get back out on the floor. In the meantime, everybody is always talking about the game. Everybody here loves to play.”

There is no secret to the Nets. Like many new-look teams struggling with injury, COVID protocols and player movement,, they’ve have used game action to implement schemes and plays on both ends of the floor, trying to build familiarity in spite of the shortened regular season, compressed schedules and lack of practice time. Aside from utilizing game play, Brooklyn has built some chemistry in limited practices.

“Well, we don’t get to practice very often with this schedule. So we try to get teaching moments and scripting and constructive pockets wherever we can,” said Nash who’s used 26 different starting lineups and has had 26 players to choose from. “Especially with the injuries this year, you can’t add to the guys’ physical load on off days, or very rarely. It’s all about teaching, learning, collaborating, connecting. So everyone is going through this around the league.

“It’s not been ideal. But we have a lot to thankful for; our guys have given great effort. I think they’ll continue to push and come together and find our chemistry, whether it’s prohibited by injuries and the amount of practice time or not. Our guys will put the time in on the court to invest in each other, put the time in off the court when we travel to invest in each other. That’s one of the strengths of our team.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

It doesn’t stop there. Durant spoke about how all the players don’t just talk on the job. There is constant communication no matter if the guys have an off-day.

“We’ve always been in communication about different sets and different actions when I was on the bench, in practices and in the film room. I feel like we were learning each other through that time and finally getting out on the floor, we didn’t have to say much. I feel like we know each others games and know exactly what to do on each play. Guys have been in constant communication no matter if its a game or off-day. I think that helps.”

And they’ve also continued, as best they can, sticking together off the court on road trips, as Joe Harris noted in his GQ interview.

“We’re no different now than we were four or five years ago. The Nets are pretty big about team dinners and letting guys be able to hang. Even last night after the game we had a catered meal in the hotel and were all able to sit down and have dinner with one another,” he said about a recent road trip.

Although solidifying chemistry with only 20 regular season games remaining will be a test, there are a couple of other elements that can benefit Brooklyn outside of their talent: home-court advantage.

Unlike last postseason in the “bubble” where homecourt advantage wasn’t a factor opposing teams needed to deal with, this year, the Nets will be home in Brooklyn and that’s a good thing.

The Nets are 22-6 under the Barclays Center lights this season and have won 18 of their last 20 home games. To dive even deeper, Brooklyn is nearly unbeatable at home when leading after the first quarter (12-1), the second quarter (15-2) and after the third quarter (16-0)!

The other element is that the Nets key players — their “Big Three” and two buyouts — have known each other, played and worked out with each other. In fact, Durant and Kyrie Irving were responsible for recruiting not just Harden, but Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. All have been willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Brooklyn is currently in sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference, nursing a one game lead over the Sixers. The playoffs are scheduled to begin on May 22 following the newly established three-day play-in tournament for the seven-to-10 seeds - which will certainly have the Nets attention since their first-round opponent will likely come out of that competition.

In the end, talent isn’t everything and it doesn’t mean the Nets are guaranteed to win a championship come July.

“We still have to prove ourselves,” Griffin said during his Nets introductory media session. “Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. We realize that. We know we have work to do and we know we have to be great.”