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Nets focus on winning — and getting tighter — on long road trip

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets had their lead in the Eastern Conference standings trimmed to just a half-game over the Sixers with Friday’s 128-109 loss to the Trail Blazers. Now sitting at 43-21 on the season, Brooklyn is hitting the road for a five-game, 11-day road trip, beginning with two tough tests in Milwaukee.

“Just continuing to find consistency for what we’re gearing up for towards the end of the season. [We] are really just thinking about staying healthy and doing everything we can to come out on the winning side,” Kyrie Irving said.

“That won’t come easy being on the road. We’ve been tested a few times this year but I think this road trip means a little bit more because it is towards the end of the season and we just want to play well and do the right thing. Excited to continue to build while we kiss our families goodbye for the next 11 days and we just have fun being tighter as a group.”

The third-seed Bucks, who sit 3.5 games behind the Nets for the top seed, will host the Nets Sunday and Tuesday. Brooklyn has won two straight against Milwaukee and are eyeing a season sweep by Tuesday. A win Sunday would extend their winning streak over the Bucks to three games.

“It’s probably the only time we’ll have a chance to see a team twice. If it can be anybody of the top teams in the Eastern Conference alongside us, that’s a competitor’s dream,” Irving added. “We look forward to it. They’ve been playing well so, just looking forward to going in there.”

Kevin Durant, who rested in Friday’s loss, and Bruce Brown, who has missed three straight games with right knee soreness, are available Sunday. Indeed, Steve Nash said he believes the team will have a full plane load of players on the road trip.

“I'm not exactly sure. I think some of those decisions will be made between now and taking off, but I believe everyone is coming,” Nash said, referring to everyone from James Harden (hamstring) to Chris Chiozza (hand). “Even the guys that are out and rehabbing or in the stay-ready group, they’ll all be coming and we’ll keep building.”

If the Nets manage to bring everyone along on the five-game road trip, as Nash said, that’ll include the banged-up bodies who aren’t likely to be back before the playoffs. Nash stated he still believes Chiozza is out for the remainder of the regular season while Harden is not close to returning to the hardwood following a setback. The Nets superstar missed his 13th straight contest in Friday’s loss, the most in his career.

The Nets agreed that having everyone on the road trip helps build comradery. Every team has a lot on their plate when hitting the road. From COVID-testing to the rigorous schedule, the Nets have taken advantage of the downtime by hanging out with each other ... within the bounds of health and safety protocols. Like Durant said, every Net has acknowledged the goal and is in constant communication about the growth of their ball club.

Irving values that downtime and the off-work comradery building but he also wants his teammates to stay committed to the game ... and committed to each other on the trip.

‘The centralized focus when you’re on the road or in the middle of the season is staying committed to the game and staying committed to your teammates,” Irving said. “Anytime we can get a chance to find some downtime to hang out, we do. Other than that, we’re just maintaining our balance by doing things on the road that help us prepare for the games to come. They are coming so quick.

“It’s been quite a journey. It hasn’t been like some of the other road trips I’ve been on throughout my NBA career. Steve is right - anytime we can find some time to hang out, then we do. Other than that, we are staying focused on the goal.”

While the games are winding down across the league, so is the chase for the top seed. Some Nets have voiced their desire to lock up the No. 1 seed while others have downplayed the quest.

“We haven’t talked about it,” Jeff Green said. “Speaking individually, I haven’t focused much on it. My focus has been on these games coming every other day. Our health and making sure all guys are healthy and trying to prepare for these games. I haven’t really paid much attention to the positions. We got eight games left.”

Irving also said he’ll be proud wherever the team finishes and values its fight and commitment through the laborious season.

“We’re just having fun and enjoying the journey. Wherever we land, I think we’ll be proud,” Irving said. “The circumstances of this season and to still be the No. 1 seed or be fluctuated between one and two, it’s a blessing. All the injuries that have been happening and surprises that come up, we just want to stay resilient as a group and get prepared for what’s coming in the next few weeks. That’s the exciting part.

“Playing in these different environments on the road, that’s exciting as well, but just getting tighter as a group throughout some of these games, we’ll learn a lot. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Although Harden will be on the trip, he was ruled out for Sunday’s game and is “still a ways away” from returning to the hardwood.

“James probably is still a ways away,” Nash said Friday. “He’s working and getting better and improving and moving in the right direction, and we’re all positive and optimistic about his long-term outlook. But I think we’ve still got plenty of time before we see him back on the floor.”

When Nash was asked whether Harden can return for the remaining eight games of the regular season, he wouldn’t confirm that he’ll be back but didn’t slam the door.

“I don’t know if I want to forecast an opinion here. I’m not sure that serves any of us,” Nash said. “Let me avoid the question and say we’ll see. I’m not 100 percent certain he will or he won’t. I just don’t want to make a guess one side or the other because I don’t think it serves anyone, because it’s out of our control. We’re really waiting to see how he responds, how he heals and how quickly he gets there and then how quickly can he handle high-intensity, NBA-level work. I’ll have to say we’ll see. Both are possible.”

Nicolas Claxton, who missed his seventh straight game Friday, was left off the status report for Sunday’s game, indicating there is a chance he plays against the Bucks. However, Nash made it clear that the 22-year-old will need a ramp up period before returning to play.

“Nic is back and working out. He’ll probably need a ramp-up period for him,” Nash said. “Don’t expect to see Nic for at least a week. He’s healthy but he just needs to get his fitness.”