Brooklyn arrived in Milwaukee on top of the Eastern Conference standings with a half-game lead over the Sixers. After a thrilling mini-series sweep to the hands of the Milwaukee Sunday and Tuesday, the Nets depart the Cream City nursing a 1 ½ game lead over the surging Bucks while sitting a 1 ½ game behind Philadelphia for the top seed.
There’s a bigger picture than two losses in the record books following the mini-series. The Bucks stole the season tiebreaker from the Nets, which translates to home-court advantage if the two powerhouses’ roads meet in June.
Beyond the two losses shaking up the standings — and foreseeable future perks — delivered to Milwaukee, the Nets confidence also took a hit. Both losses came down to fourth quarter play with one coming down to a 28-foot three on the top of the key from Kevin Durant Sunday, the other an 18-1 stretch from the hungry Bucks that erased a five-point lead to pull away with a 124-118 victory Tuesday. The Bucks outworked and were more physical than Brooklyn.
“It’s not necessarily the forte of our roster, but there’s no excuse for not trying to match or be more physical than the other team,” Steve Nash said Tuesday. “That’s something we’ve got to emphasize and continue to grow into.”
While the losses were a clear hit to the Nets pride, it also exposed a weakness as well as a potential difference-maker. While Milwaukee’s roster is a makeup of years of familiarity, Brooklyn doesn’t have that same luxury, which could be a big disadvantage come playoff basketball. The Nets head coach pinpointed that following Tuesday’s defeat, explaining the importance of continuity to help soothe the negative.
“Our gap for our team is that we don’t have a common history. 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,” Nash said.
“While we make up that gap, we got to be more physical, win 50-50 balls and do the dirty work. We have to give ourselves some sort of buffer while we figure each other out, get more familiar with our schemes and our sets and give ourselves that little cushion where it’s not as smooth, not as seamless at all times, but we’re still able to scrap, claw and stay in the games.”
Durant didn’t shy away from continuity as a problem for Brooklyn, but said he feels like he and his teammates have been together for years, calling the team a “connected” group. He confidently explained how Brooklyn’s roster holds a strong veteran presence to help patch that hole.
“That is a huge factor. Continuity is a big thing in this league, but we got veterans on this team that played in different situations and that know pretty much know all terminology that goes on in this league and every type of set that we run on both sides,” Durant said. “That’s to our advantage as well, having that veteran leadership. We still are a connected group. I feel like we’ve been together for years too, so we got to continue to keep building on that.”
The Nets, like a lot of new-look teams, have tried to utilize regular-season minutes to build comradery and chemistry ... as well as health. Tuesday night was no different.
While Milwaukee was paving an 18-1 run in the fourth quarter, Nash didn’t elect to call a timeout in that stretch to regroup or at least disrupt the Bucks’ momentum. The Nets head coach, who isn’t a fan of hasty timeouts, elaborated on his decision. In somewhat the same vein as KD’s comments on the team’s connectivity, Nash stressed the importance of problem-solving over regrouping ... in some scenarios. He did admit that maybe he should have.
“We could’ve called a timeout here or there for sure, but there’s also a part of our team that you want to learn to problem-solve,” Nash said on the lack of timeouts in the fourth quarter. “We’re getting good looks at the basket and for stretches and so you want to keep having them problem solve. You want to keep having them attacking. Tonight, maybe I could have called another timeout, but you also want to make sure you save a few for the end of the game.
“So yeah, I was caught in a dilemma, but you know, maybe I should have. At the same time, I don’t think it was going to make a big difference at that point.”
Nash clearly isn’t the only head coach that has had their players police themselves in tough situations. Durant, who was the Nets' main catalyst in the mini-series, related to his past experiences with head coaches who had the same strategy, the end goal being growth.
“I’ve been around coaches that handle that situation differently and Steve [Nash] is handling it differently as well. He might have let us figure it out ourselves or he might call a timeout. I think all coaches make that decision throughout a game and it can go either way,” Durant said. “I think it’s good for us to problem solve and figure things out and continue to keep growing as a unit when things get tough out there - there’s been plenty of times throughout this year I’ve seen coach do both things, call a timeout or let us play.”
It’s also evident Brooklyn is missing James Harden, who hasn’t played since April 5 due to a right hamstring strain. While the regular season winds down, Harden’s health and his hamstring are some of the most important factors looking ahead. Each game that passes, whether it’s a win or a loss, his importance builds more value.
Harden, initially viewed as a luxury, is now clearly a necessity. The team is 9-10 without the former MVP in the lineup and an eye-popping 27-7 with him available. Besides that traditional measure, Harden brings intangibles — yes, including connectivity — three elements Brooklyn dearly needs in the home stretch of the season.
“I’m waiting for all of us to be on the floor playing, just having a complete team and whenever that day comes, I’ll be extremely happy,” Kyrie Irving said Sunday. “We’re just holding the ship right now together. I don’t want to play the what-if game and all that, but whenever the time comes when we’re all on the floor, hopefully in the near future, we’ll be ready to play. Right now, we got to go with who we have and go out there and put on a great show.”
The Nets have been hopeful all season that the team can display a healthy roster come the home stretch of the season. Indeed, Brooklyn is getting progressively healthier with the injury report being trimmed from seven to only three players and one of those players has missed 63 games.
Nash understands the challenge of solving the equation without a healthy Harden, but is determined to solve the puzzle with the pieces he has now.
“For us, we have the luxury of talent but we don’t have the luxury of time. That’s okay. We understand that and we’ll work around that. James will give us a total different dimension, but we don’t sit here and say wait till James gets back. We try to solve the puzzle now,” Nash told reporters.
There’s only six games left -- the next two against the Mavericks and Nuggets away. While Brooklyn can’t control the outcomes of the Sixers and Bucks, who have solid foundations of common history, the team hopes it can chip away and forge comradery.
“Every day you wake up, it should be about your craft,” said Durant, summing up the challenge. “I think that’s how everyone approaches this thing. We try to take it a day at a time, possession at a time. We can’t control what’s going to happen at the end of the season or what other teams are going to do.
“I think we just got to take advantage of each moment and I think that’s what we’re doing,” “The guys are locked in. We are talking about the game when we aren’t at practice, on the bus, talk about it on the plane so I think that helps as well. Just staying locked in mentally about what we want to do as a group.”
Looking forward, the Nets will have a little bit of cushion starting next week. Teams like the Nets who won’t be in the play-in tournament will have six days off from the end of the regular season till the first post-season game, from May 16 through 22. And if the Nets want to rest key players over the last two games, a weekend back-to-back vs. the Bulls and Spurs, those players will have 10 days off. It’s a thought.
- Nets coach Steve Nash questioned for decision not to call a timeout during Bucks’ 18-1 run - Greg Logan - Newsday
- Inside Steve Nash’s Zen-like approach to timeouts - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- The Nets don’t have championship-level continuity: ‘We don’t have a common history. We’re brand new’ - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News