“Big Three’s” will face off and superstars will fill the firmament. It’s the highly anticipated storyline that all begins on Saturday night at the Barclays Center ... and James Harden is confident heading into the battle.
On Friday, after practice, Harden expressed confidence as excitement grows but his main focus is on the level of focus required.
“Every year your plan is to win a championship. That’s every basketball player’s dream and mindset every single year. In reality, it’s only a handful of teams that have the opportunity and we’re one of those teams this year.
“The excitement is there but the focus is the most important thing for myself and try to rub that focus level and engagement to detail into every one of my teammates,” Harden said. We all know they’re a great team on both ends of the ball. It’s not going to be an easy challenge for us but we’re up for it.”
Harden — who only played in the first of the three regular-season matchups against the Bucks — foresees a showdown for the second-round series against a team that presents not just a threat to Brooklyn’s title drive.
“They’re a very good team. They’ve had their core for some years now and then they add Jrue [Holiday], PJ [Tucker] and some other guys in [Bobby] Portis and [Bryn] Forbes. They’ve had their core and added some really good pieces which is why they’ve been one of the best teams all year. If you look at our roster, we’re elite too,” Harden said.
“It’s going to be a showdown but I’m more than confident going into this postseason just because of the roster and then our schemes and the things we can control with the versatility that we have.”
Beyond the schemes and game plans, Harden knows that the deeper the series goes, the more each team will have to bank on individual talent and detail.. He argued that both teams will quickly become familiar with the other’s plays and options.
“It’s always exciting especially when you get deeper and deeper into the postseason. That means you’re one of those really good teams and the thing about this series and even in the postseason is once you get deeper in the series, three or four games, the plays don’t matter anymore,” Harden said. “It’s about individual will, individual skill, and guys going to go get it. Both teams have that so it’s whoever is going to go take it.”
Milwaukee heads into the highly anticipated second-round series unfamiliar with Brooklyn at full strength, highlighted by the Nets “Big Three.” The trio didn’t play together in any of the three meetings during the regular season, but when Brooklyn rewatched film from their mini-series sweeping loss in May, that raised their confidence even more in Harden’s opinion.
“Yeah and we did so many things in that film session that we could’ve corrected or could have been better at which is one of the reasons we’re in a good place because we can get better and we will get better. We’ll continue to get better game by game, possession by possession,” said Harden on watching film.
“That’s all we focus on is ourselves no matter who our opponent is. We focus on us getting better because we haven’t had that opportunity throughout the course of the regular season. We focus on ourselves and the things we can control and that’s it. Everything else will play itself out.”
Beyond focusing on themselves and continuing to grow, Harden dove deeper into the type of team Brooklyn can evolve into during their postseason run. The former MVP believes his teammates still don’t know how good they can be.
“This is how we need to play our best basketball going into the postseason. Sometimes within a season, we reached that point. I think for us we don’t know yet and we haven’t reached that point yet because we haven’t been together for a long time. Our goals for individually and for our team is to continue to get better every single day. Just learning and continuing to get better every single day, that’s the goal.”
Harden — who has said defense will be the main focus in the postseason run stretching as far back to his arrival — saw growth in the first-round “gentleman’s sweep” of the Celtics on that end. It was Game 3 that opened their perspective on how valuable that end of the floor will be.
“Of course, especially when we get stops like multiple stops in a row and we go out and get layups and threes from all of our guys, it’s very difficult to beat us. That has to be our mindset and what we’ve been focus on is defensively. A learning experience in Game 3 in Boston where we didn’t hang our hats on the defensive end and it showed. From that point on, defensively we are locked in, we were engaged and we had spurts offensively like sheesh this is crazy,” Harden said. “Now that defensive mentality, we have to have that consistently.”
Although the Nets are focusing on themselves — a strategy the team has inhabited all season — and building along the way, they’ll be without one of their key pieces, Jeff Green, for at least Game 1 on Saturday.
Green — who is rehabbing a plantar fascia strain in his left foot — is progressing and after Game 1 concludes, he’ll be hopefully keep moving forward. Green is currently working with the performance team, according to Steve Nash.
“We’re down a player that is very versatile and can guard multiple positions and play different roles offensively. It’s a loss for us,” said Nash on losing Green. “We missed him the last few games and we’ll have to continue to scrap and fight and put together good performances and try to win games when he’s not here and hopefully, he’ll be back sooner rather than later.”
The Nets head coach said the team’s gameplan will likely remain the same with Green still on the shelf. The same will go when the Nets small-ball 5 returns.
“I think the game plan and philosophy is the same. We just have one less button to push in as far as matchups and rotations,” Nash said. “A touch less versatile without Jeff so nothing necessarily changes when Jeff comes back.”
Nash admitted that Brooklyn didn’t have Green marked down to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo. While the plan is clear that it will take a collective unit to stop the reigning two-time MVP, Green wasn’t in the cards to guard the Bucks’ top option, but the team has a game plan in place.
“I’m not sure if we had Jeff earmarked to guard Giannis anyways,” Nash said. “We miss Jeff for his versatility and what he brings versatility-wise on both sides of the ball but he wasn’t earmarked to guard Giannis. We will miss him in a lot of departments otherwise for sure.”
“We’ll have our game plan. We got to be sharp but most importantly, we have to be competitive and together. If we’re really competitive and we play together, we have a chance for our game plan to be successful and to try to make it difficult for him. That’s the bottom line,” Nash said. “As we start the series, we’ll be able to make adjustments, tweaks, and figure it out as we go to be more effective throughout the series.”
While Green is on the bench, Durant admitted losing his teammate for a period of time does hurt. Although losing Green is a big hit to Brooklyn for Game 1, the Nets superstar is excited to see who takes advantage of the opportunity.
“Jeff is a huge part of what we do. We’re definitely going to miss him out there, but we’re looking forward to other guys stepping up, filling that role, and see who’s ready,” Durant said. “That’s what the playoffs is about.”
While the Nets calculate the yet undetermined loss of Green, the frontcourt rotation has the chance of getting deeper with the game plan. DeAndre Jordan is “definitely in play.” Nash said. Jordan hasn’t played since May 8 against Denver, logging five minutes of court action.
“We’re going to have to cover him [Giannis] by committee. Multiple people will get a chance. DJ is definitely in play, Nic is in play, and BG (Blake Griffin) as well, so it’s going to be by committee,” Nash said. “Terrific player as well all know and is a really difficult matchup for any team and he’ll be difficult for us but we got to take the challenge,” Nash said.
Although Brooklyn will try to defend the “Greek Freak” by committee, the strategy starts with following basic tenets of defense and the same goes with Milwaukee as a collective unit, said Kevin Durant.
“Just playing hard. Guarding your yard and guarding who’s in front of you and keeping the ball between you and the rim. It’s easier said than done but that’s the foundation of it. He’s going to play hard and we got to match it,” Durant said.
“Focus and just second and third efforts. You simplify to that, we put ourselves in a good position. For the most part, you go out there and cover for your teammates and play extremely hard every possession, keep the ball in front, do the basics, and then you’ll be alright. That’s a good foundation if you start with the basics,” Durant added.
“We’re a connected team as well. We’re a team that’s only been together for a year but we’ve been through so much already and we’ve adapted to each other so far. It’s another step in the direction we want to go and hopefully, it starts off well tomorrow.”