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Steve Nash facing criticism, comparisons with Ime Udoka as Nets go down 2-0

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Nash has been dealt a strange hand. Yes, he’s had some aces but he’s also had some jokers, wild cards as well: injuries, Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated, a big mid-season trade. Now, though, it’s time to show his hand. It’s been found wanting.

The general consensus after the Nets went down 2-0 after Wednesday night’s loss to the Celtics is that Ime Udoka, his assistant and defensive coordinator last season, has outcoached him. There’s plenty of blame to go around with Kevin Durant having two subpar games and Kyrie Irving going from a 39-point master class to a 10-point bummer between games 1 and 2.

Perhaps most importantly for Nash is that both of his superstars credited Udoka with his ability to develop a defensive game plan, make adjustments when needed and keep them off balance,

The Celtics defense has turned forced Durant to turn the ball over 12 times — often at critical junctures — and held him to just 13-of-41 shooting from the field, crowding him, physically abusing him.

“They’re doing a good job of trying to cut off my scoring, trying to limit my shot-making,” Durant conceded postgame. “Two or three people contest and there’s somebody there in the lane when I’m driving. They might double here and there, so they’re doing a good job and it’s on me to figure it out.”

“Ime knows us really well,” Irving added. “I think he has some keys in the treasure chest that he’s telling those guys.”

Indeed, Udoka mentioned that pre-game, perhaps part of the gamesmanship evident in every playoff series.

“I think there’s a huge benefit being around those guys coaching, a lot of the same players. There are different players obviously, Harden being gone, the additions that they have but Durant and Irving are who they are and I know their mentality and how they approach the game. So there are some benefits to me seeing how they tick and how they’ve been guarded in the past. As far as Steve and what they’re going to do,” he said.

Whether it’s his knowledge of how the Nets and particular KD and Kyrie tick or finding the best use of his talented roster, one of big narratives out of the series which comes to Brooklyn on Saturday night is that Udoka is outcoaching his former boss.

“I think in hindsight you could always come up with something,” Nash said Wednesday. “But there’s no guarantee that whatever your adjustment is is going to work, so it’s 20-20 looking backwards.”

He also said that the whole team needs to respond when play turns against you. It was very much Nash-speak, careful to emphasize team over stars.

“Well, clearly it helps if (Durant and Irving) have their typical outings, but that’s not the only way,” Nash said. “I think there’s plenty of ways. Their superstars didn’t have incredible games, so it’s a team sport, it’s a team effort and I think our group’s got a lot of ways where we can improve.

“It’s important for our group. It’s a new team with little common experiences to go through some of these battles, learn from it and be able to execute under more pressure.”

But there’s criticism from both fans — and inside — that Nets offense is simply too dependent on iso plays from their superstars, that things are often too random, rotations that are, at least to fans, out of whack. Players disappear in the game plan like Seth Curry did last night.

Nash has (rightfully) complained about the Nets loss of continuity between this year and last when he faced a roster with 10 new players. Then the loss of Joe Harris (ankle), the early season absence of Irving (vaccine mandate), the mid-season absence of Kevin Durant (sprained MCL), combined with James Harden’s mini-strike and trade, then Ben Simmons back issues has all taken its toll. When you go with 43 different starting lineups, it should tell you something about the season.

Moreover, you haven’t heard the superstars defend their coach as they have during the season although it wasn’t that long ago, April 8, that KD said he thought Nash had “handled the job perfectly,” considering everything that was thrown at him. Does that mean anything or does he have immunity for their criticism as long as they aren’t performing at the highest level themselves?

Indeed Wednesday’s headlines are filled with references to Udoka’s success at adjusting and Nash’s failure.

Peter Botte of the Post wrote...

Celtics coach and former Nets assistant Ime Udoka coached circles around former boss Steve Nash with a brilliant swarming defensive game plan against Kevin Durant, who combined with Beantown villain Kyrie Irving for an 8-for-30 shooting night in a 114-107 loss in Game 2.

Kristian Winfield of the Daily News was even harder, suggesting the Nets should have kept Udoka ... as head coach.

For the second consecutive season, Nash has appeared in over his head as the head coach of a team with championship-or-bust expectations. He has ridden the coattails of his two superstars, only to fall short every time they haven’t been available or played up to par. He has struggled to adjust to adjustments and runs a junior varsity-level offense, in part because the Nets have not had time to build a more complex offense with roster turbulence this season, but also in part because he’s relied on his stars to create plays for themselves and others so frequently this season.

In that commentary, of course, is the conundrum of player employment. Who’s in charge here, the head coach or the superstars? We all remember Irving’s line about teams with superstars not needing a coach. Or perhaps better put, who gets the blame when player empowerment fails? KD and Kyrie are the key stanchions that hold up the franchise. Simmons, whenever he joins them, will be afforded that same kind of stature. It’s the nature of the game now. They’re the ones with the big contracts, the big followings. Nash may be a Hall of Famer, a renowned leader and humanitarian but compared to them, he’s expendable.