The Nets have hit their lowest point in a season of high’s and low’s: losing a season-high four straight and arriving the Mile High City with the most adversity they’ve faced all season.
“You never want to lose four games in a row. I think you’re trying to have a positive outlook on what’s happening as possible. That’s the best way to do it. We can b***h and complain about a whole bunch of different stuff but there’s no good that comes out of it,” Joe Harris said following Thursday’s 113-109 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks. “Hopefully, it’ll tighten up the group and bring us a little closer together.”
The Nets dropped three straight games in February that they quickly flipped into a six-game winning streak and becoming the hottest team in the league. Other than that, Brooklyn hasn’t faced much adversity this season.
“It’s about time we got tested in terms of having to think the game on a different level knowing that teams are shaping up for the playoffs,” Kyrie Irving said. “We’ve done our best to make sure that we are ready to play. Now we got to think the game going against some of these good teams, especially on the road. It’s inevitable in terms of going into other people’s home floors. They know the rims well. They know the courts well. Everyone feels comfortable in their home, so we just got to be aware of that and I think the last few games have proven that. It’s good that we have these tests now and these challenges. It’s been too easy at times.”
"It's about time we got tested" - Kyrie Irving on this current rough stretch for the Nets pic.twitter.com/7YQQTbKNgk— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) May 7, 2021
Kevin Durant is on the same page despite his personal rough stretch. He likes the position the team is in and hopes his teammates feel this pain from losing and use it inspire them to grow and get better. Durant is glad it’s happening now instead of in the postseason — which would have Brooklyn packing their bags.
“It’s all a learning experience. I’m glad it’s happening to us now instead of in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, we build off this and keep growing. I hope we feel this pain from losing and feeling like we are where we don’t want to be,” said Durant after Thursday’s defeat. “ I like this position for us and I think it’s going to make us better as we continue to keep watch film, going through practice, going through shootaround and playing the game.”
There is no secret the recent competition has had a lot of motivation. Portland is clawing to secure a playoff spot with their Terry Stotts on the hot season. Milwaukee is determined the lock up the second seed for a sunnier path later in the spring and Dallas is struggling to hold the five seed in the Western Conference standings.
“What we’re seeing right now is that we get down to these games and we’re playing high-quality teams that want to win for playoff seeding. It’s a little bit of unchartered territory for this group,” said Steve Nash on the four-game losing skid.
“It’s good for us. We all want to win every night and much preferred to win tonight. Some adversity, some higher-level competition is what this team needs going into the playoffs. We have no common experiences together in that setting so these are a little bit of a dress rehearsal when you are playing playoff teams and teams that need wins. This is good for us. The adversity is good for us. We are going to face adversity in the playoffs.”
Beyond four losses in the record books, their future playoff path took a big blow. The losing skid — and the Sixers’ six-game winning streak — has eliminated their chance to win the No. 1 seed ... while also narrowing the gap between the second and third seed.
The Nets (43-24) sit only a half-game ahead of the surging Bucks (42-24) for the second seed and trail the Sixers (45-21) by 2 ½ games for the top spot with only five to go. Following Milwaukee’s mini-series sweep, the Bucks stole the tiebreaker from the Nets to snag home-court advantage if the two Eastern Conference power houses paths meet in the postseason. Same goes with Philly.
Although the dominos aren’t falling Brooklyn’s way in the home stretch of the regular season, the team say they aren’t worried about losing ... quite yet.
“No. I wouldn’t say I’m worried and I don’t think anybody in the locker room is necessarily worried. This is just a tough stretch of games. We haven’t lost four in a row at all this season, but this is what happens over the course of the season,” Harris said. “We still have five games now to get ourselves playing better basketball and hopefully carry a little more momentum in a positive way into the postseason.”
Instead of viewing this latest challenge under a negative microscope, the Nets are viewing this losing skid positively as a learning experience without any sense of panic and battling the new pressure.
“I think pressure is good. You are going to face pressure in the playoffs, so we have to be pressure tested and this is a team that hasn’t been there together before,” Nash argued. This is a little bit of pressure for us. A little bit of a hole to dig out of. I think these are positive scenarios we haven’t faced. For us to go through this and have a little losing streak - we need all of these games to get better. Win or lose, what can we take from there and what can we gain.”
Steve Nash on the Nets' 4-game losing streak as they prepare for the playoffs:— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) May 7, 2021
"Some adversity, some higher level competition is I think what this team needs going into the playoffs. We have no common experiences in that setting. These are a little bit of a dress rehearsal" pic.twitter.com/3sMigN8WTQ
“This is not a time to panic. We’ve made the playoffs,” Nash added. “We’re getting healthy at the right time now. What can we do? How can we grow? How can we put the puzzle and the pieces together to make us as strong as possible in a short period of time as possible, so we’re giving ourselves the best chance to succeed when the playoffs come around.”
While there is no panicking in the locker room, there have been recurring themes over the course of the losing skid, highlighted by their fourth-quarter play that's worrisome. Basketball is a game of runs and Brooklyn has been on the backend of that ideology.
The Nets led 103-97 after capping off a 25-12 extended run in the third and early minutes of the fourth against Milwaukee in Tuesday loss. The Bucks flipped the script, forging an 18-1 run over the course of four minutes when Brooklyn went cold, going 1-of-5 from the field with a pair of costly turnovers. In Thursday’s defeat, the Nets conceded a 13-2 run in the final frame and the Mavericks didn’t turn back.
“It’s definitely concerning. The fourth quarter is obviously when you are hoping to be at your sharpest,” said Harris on the Nets fourth quarter struggles. “You definitely don’t want to put yourself in the position where you have to be, but you hope it’s collective over the course of the game where you can play a full 48. The fourth quarter is where you have to be able to lock in, focus and execute.”
"It's certainly better to go through this now, versus in a playoff stretch" - Joe Harris on the Nets' 4-game losing streak pic.twitter.com/Qu9aeQ18YA— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) May 7, 2021
“Other teams know, especially when they are playing at home, that the fourth quarter is winning time in terms of picking up the pace. Both second units are in. Some starters are in sometimes, so the game can have different flows. If you look at the Bucks game, primarily they had four starters on the floor to start the fourth quarter. They need to have that type of separation in the game with their players.
“Tonight, some starters were in with that second unit but primarily, we had a few starters and just figuring it out in the fourth quarter,” said Irving on the latest fourth-quarter performances. “Our level of play has to overpower or overmatch our opponent. When teams go on runs, we get a timeout but we have to be able to respond. We need to be tested like that. We’re not a perfect basketball club. I don’t think we would be doing ourselves a great service if we weren’t honest. We haven’t played well in terms of spirts of the game when it matters. We just got to get better continuity down the stretch.”
In those fourth quarters, the Nets commonly went ISO on offense - a strategy that helped the team lead the league in (12.0 ppg) heading into Dallas. That strategy folded when the opposition loaded up and sent additional players to the strong side.
“The ISO basketball down the stretch is not going to get us over the hump,” Irving added. “We just got to run some quality plays, quality possession, and figure out a balance of where we’re special with our ISO game and our ability to score.”
Beyond Brooklyn’s fourth-quarter woes, the team has failed to capitalize on the small details. The Nets aren’t a rebounding profile team and they have been outdueled on the boards from guards to centers. Turnovers have mounted and opponents have capitalized off their miscues, flipping the deflected balls or bad passes into early offense and extra points. That lack of attention to detail has played a big factor in Brooklyn nursing leads throughout the contests with their biggest in the losing skid being 14 and an average of only eight points.
“Just know what we need to do on both ends of the floor at all times and knowing the level of efficiency we got to have on both ends of the floor. It’s the small things. That’s usually the last thing that takes you over the top is the small things,” said Durant. “Offensive rebounds, being in the right spots, not being a split second late on switches, not point switching - just the little stuff. We see that that’s the difference of winning and losing. Guys are conscious of that and I think we’ll get better from it.”
Irving, who is averaging 32.5 points in the four-game losing skid, sees the defensive improvement required to make it to the celebration stage regardless of the offensive firepower not displayed.
“You got to think the game. That’s the only way you are going to win that gold ball, the Larry O’Brien. You got to think the game, play defense, and overmatch physicality. We’ve seen it. Defense wins championships. We’ve seen some of the best offensive teams get by, but defensively is where we got to make our mark,” Irving said. “I feel like we’ll be able to do that having these tests and challenges now.”
Beyond the wins and losses, each game that goes by shows the increasing value James Harden brings to the team. Harden — who is clearing the final hurdles of his right hamstring strain rehab — is “very confident” he’ll return in at least one of the final five games. He has missed 16 straight games, which is the longest injury absence of his career. The team is 27-7 with the superstar in the lineup and an eye-popping 9-11 without him.
“Clearly James is an amazing player and means a lot to this team. We’ve had a lot of success with him on the floor. He’ll improve us immediately in a lot of ways and cover up a lot of holes,” said Nash on Harden’s impact. “We still don’t have that common experience. We need time to grow and learn and play together. That may not be there and it might not be enough but it is what it is and we got to work. We got to find a way to come together as quickly as possible and what can we control to win games as we’re finding that understanding and cohesion.”
Although Harden’s impact will instantly be felt — especially in the fourth quarter with the Nets being 23-8 in ‘clutch games’ with him and 3-5 without him — that doesn’t fall under the same category of building chemistry in a short time frame, especially for the Nets — a championship favorite with no excuses available. Harden downplayed the glaring issue Thursday, countering it with the amount of talent Brooklyn possesses.
"One of the things a lot of teams don't have is talent. Skill-wise, we're elite. I'm not worried at all"— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) May 6, 2021
- James Harden on how the Nets gel pic.twitter.com/9PAFdSQ0Vd
As usual, Irving had a wider perspective on the Nets lack of common history. Being a leader on the Nets, he and the team’s other leaders are determined to patch the glaring issue heading into a high-pressure postseason.
“You can’t make up time spent with anyone unless you go and do it. We are in a part of our journey where we are being challenged. We have to look deep in terms of what can each one of us do in our roles to be better for the collective unit,” Irving said. “It has to be about our team. It has to be about us and I think we do a great job of that, but now we are asking each other to go to a certain level. Some of us been on that championship level and some of us have not. Trying to mesh that together takes time and usually takes teams one or two seasons, but now we are heading into this playoff run where we have to make it up on the fly. That’s okay, but things aren’t going to look perfect and we have to be ready for that.
Irving added: “Us as leaders, myself and all the rest of the leaders on this team are going to do a great job of preparing one another and just simplifying things. It starts with the mind and the body being on the same page.”
Brooklyn’s final leg of their rigorous five-game road trip is in Denver - a team that has won nine of their last 11 games - on Saturday, May 8. Luckily for the Nets, the Nuggets are on a back-to-back beginning tonight against the scorching Jazz. Brooklyn enters Denver with a sense of urgency to get back on the right track.
“When you go through difficult times, that’s when you create sort of this bond that you otherwise wouldn’t have,” added Harris. “For us to have this now, it’s tough and it sucks, but at the same time, we still have five games to get ourselves right. There is definitely a sense of urgency to go and get ourselves right against Denver.”
The Nets also will have an advantage other teams won’t when it comes to the post-season: a depth and breadth of playoff experience perhaps unmatched among the 16 clubs that will play after May 22. Of the 17 players on the roster, 14 have played in the post-season. And of those who have played have racked up a grand total of 577 playoff games, more than 12,000 minutes, Six Nets players — Durant, Irving, Harden, Jeff Green, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — have each played in at least 50 games in post-season. KD himself has an 88-51 record.
Even in the players’ comments don’t give you confidence, those numbers certainly should.