The most anticipated season in Nets history came to a close on Sunday. Brooklyn finished their successful regular-season campaign with the best winning percentage (.662) in franchise history, 24 games over .500 — another record — with countless individual and collective standards shattered. Now, they’ll move on to the postseason as the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“It’s great. You think about all the things that have been thrown at us and how difficult this year was for everybody. Just the condensed schedule and all the protocols; I’m really proud of our team,” said Steve Nash reflecting on the 2020-21 season and locking up the second seed. “Getting the two seed is an accomplishment for everything that we faced this year and I feel like everybody in that locker room contributed in a meaningful way which makes it special. Lots to be proud of. Lots to be thankful for, but this is what we came for. Now we get to work and really go at it.”
While an historic season is settled in the record books, it’s onto the playoffs. It’s not arguable that the Nets have the best collective group of talent in the East. Aside from having that talent leverage, Brooklyn is approaching their postseason push and chase for their first title as a “new season” with a fresh mindset.
“Whatever we did so far is out the window. We obviously got principles and foundations that we want to build on, but it’s a new season for us and I think that’s the mentality we all want to have, said Kevin Durant, who’s played in 139 playoff games, 88 of them wins. “We did some solid things throughout the regular season, but we want to continue to keep getting better but not realize the regular season is over and it’s a new vibe for us, I’m looking forward to the preparation we’ll go through and the whole journey I’m looking forward to.”
After cementing the second seed with a win over the Cavaliers in their regular-season finale Sunday, Brooklyn earned themselves an extended period of rest while the team prepares for their postseason run and awaits their first-round opponent who will come out of the NBA’s new play-in tournament.
Their first-round opponent will either be Washington (7) or Boston (8) based on which prevails in the play-in matchup Tuesday night. The loser will need to battle the winner of the 9-10 game — Indiana (9) or Charlotte (10) — to keep their playoff hopes alive. Whichever team comes out of the rigorous tournament will face Philadelphia (1) in the first round.
“As a staff, we aren’t scouting the first round yet. Our scouting department is compiling all that info. A lot of playoff prep has taken place but not necessarily from our staff on our opponents yet in that we don’t know who that is going to be yet probably until Tuesday night if we finish second,” Nash said Saturday before Brooklyn knew where they stood. “Our advanced scouting is compiling information, but our coaching staff hasn’t turned there yet.”
While Brooklyn sits around till Tuesday night to see who they’ll play in the first round, its not a secret that teams with the best talent (normally) hold the edge. Not a lot of 1 or 2 seeds have gone down in the first round.
In the Nets case, however, there’s a bit of a unique twist. They may the best offensive “Big Three” in NBA history by the numbers but the trio didn’t play together for three months and only saw eight games together in a Brooklyn uniform.
While the collective experience isn’t that great, their three stars have played in more than 300 post-season games combined and KD and Kyrie have three championships throughout their respective careers. Overall, the 17-man roster has 577 playoff games under its belt and only three players, one of them rookie Reggie Perry, will be making their playoff debuts.
Nash believes their lengthy postseason experience will serve as a benefit but nothing beats collective experience in his eyes — a challenge Brooklyn has faced all year and hope to build on in the postseason. After all, Nash has written out 38 different lineup cards and worked with 27 different players. Those are franchise records too!
“It helps for sure. I don’t know if it supersedes, but this is a game about harmony, chemistry and a team coming together. We’re going to have to do that in a short amount of time, but we understand that,” Nash said. “We accept that and we do have guys that are talented and have a lot of experience, so hopefully we can rely on that as we find ourselves. A great challenge for us to go out there and try to figure out who we are and how we can play at our best level in a really short period of time.”
You can’t cheat experience and Blake Griffin does see an advantage with the unit’s collective playoff experience, but he also know every postseason is different. The one constant is that mental toughness and long hours of preparation will be the priority from 1-to-15.
“The playoffs are different basketball. It’s a different brand of basketball and once we’re in, we got to lock-in,” Griffin argued. “There’s a lot of mental toughness that goes into winning playoff games. Preparing from them throughout the game, making the adjustments, and all that. There are highs and lows in the playoffs and you have to be able to ride that storm. We have a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of playoff games. Hopefully, that’ll come in handy for us.”
Durant doesn’t hold the decorative playoff resume in that high regard. While the Nets superstar knows what it takes to hoist the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy when it’s all said and done, there’s no path down that exclusive road which doesn’t include putting in the extra work.
“I don’t really think about it like that. I look at it like we got a lot of talent on his roster. We play together, we play hard and we’re healthy right now. If we come out there and play desperate basketball and smart basketball to start, we put ourselves in good shape,” said Durant. “You never know what can happen. Every day is important and we just try to keep building.”
Outside of their poster superstar, the Nets are on the same page. Take it from Griffin, who was on highly talented Clippers teams with highly evolved aspirations that fell short. He’s felt firsthand what it’s like to fall short when boasting a talent advantage.
“We have work to do. To be special, you just can’t be special by showing up. We got work to do. We got to lock in and know our scouting reports, game plans, and execute on those,” said Griffin. “We have very talented players and guys who sacrificed something to be here. That means a lot to everybody. I think when everybody has that one goal in mind, it helps the comradery.”
Luckily for Brooklyn, their desired goal of being fully healthy come postseason has been filled to an extent. Harden is healthy but has played in only two games since returning from the longest injury absence of his career. He missed the previous 18 games and 20 of the last 21 contests. Previously, he hadn't missed more than seven straight games in his career.
“It was a majority priority. A big goal for us was to be as healthy as possible by the end of the year, keep everyone on the same page and be excited about what we’re doing,” said Nash on Brooklyn’s health. “Mission accomplished there. We have a week to prepare and the level is going to go up, but we got to rise to the occasion and be ready to go.”
The Nets head coach said Harden will be a go for the team's first playoff practice. Although Harden is available to get going early with playoff preparation, Brooklyn will be without their most reliable player in the 2020-21 season and could be without him for the entire week.
“I think James will be fine. I think Joe (Harris) might need a few days. I’m not really sure. I think it’s about monitoring his situation, but there might be a case where he may not practice the whole week,” said Nash on Harris, who has missed the past three games with a left gluteal (hip) strain. “That’s okay. He’s played a lot of minutes this year and we want him to heal up as best as he possibly can and not have to chase this thing through the playoffs and have it linger. I’d rather have him resolve it than practice this week. He can follow along and rehab. That’ll make me happy. If he’s able to practice, I’m sure he will.”
The first round of the playoffs tips off on Saturday, May 22, and Brooklyn will have home-court advantage throughout the first and second round. And a lot of time to prepare, practice and get ready.