NBA

Opinion: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden scoring outbursts not enough for Nets to win title

One Brooklyn Nets star has shown he can still remain one of the NBA’s top scorers after overcoming an Achilles injury. But Kevin Durant can use his length, positional versatility and vast wingspan to accomplish something great.

“We can’t rely on making shots,” Durant said. “We have to get stops first.”

A second Nets star has shown a willingness to sacrifice his role after showing the wrong attitude during his trade demands with the Houston Rockets. But James Harden can use his strength, smarts and aggressiveness in other ways, too.

“Offensively, we’re one of the best teams in this league. But can we man up and get stops individually,” Harden asked. “And then our principles, can we have each other’s back on a consistent basis.”

A third Nets star has been an enigma during his undisclosed absences, while remaining stellar with his shooting and ball handling. But Kyrie Irving can add more tricks when he defends someone as well.

“We have the desire to go out there and do it,” Irving said. “It just has to be as all NBA players say, a collection of 48 minutes.”

The Nets secured a 124-120 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in a nationally televised game Tuesday, and it showed yet again the Nets have struggled to do that for 48 minutes. At times, they show apathy. At other times, they show hustle. At times, they appear undermanned. At other times, they appear dominant.

Sure, it might be tempting to look at the Brooklyn-LA matchup strictly through the lens of the Nets (14-9) securing a marquee win against the Clippers (16-6) and possibly offering an NBA Finals preview. It might also be understandable to respect how Irving (39 points), Durant (28) and Harden (23) complemented each other with ball movement instead of one-on-one highlight reels. But big picture, the Nets’ championship fortunes also heavily rest on if they can become a consistently dependable defensive team.

All of which begs the question: how good can Brooklyn actually become on defense?

“We’ll see,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “The No. 1 goal is to be on the same page and to be solid. If we can be fundamental in our approach and be solid with our schemes, that’s No. 1. Or No. 2, really. The No. 1 is the pride and competitive spirit.”

What will happen if the Nets fulfill those two job descriptions?

“If we bring that every night, we may not profile as a great defensive team. But we can be a solid defensive team at minimum and take care of the things we can control,” Nash said. “And they have to guard us as well. So I think we have a lot of work to do on that end of the floor. But I don’t want to make any sort of predictions.”

Understandable. This season has been too erratic to predict anything.

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The Nets' Kevin Durant (7), Kyrie Irving (11) and James Harden (13), along with the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard, look on during a review in Brooklyn's 124-120 win Tuesday night. (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)

Team depth charts have diminished amid the NBA’s health and safety protocols aimed to mitigate risk with the coronavirus. Depth charts have also fluctuated because of injuries, both part of the normal course of a season and part of the compressed nature of the schedule. And for all the advantages the Nets enjoy with their star-studded talent, they face a disadvantage with having little time to perfect schemes, plays and film study.

“We don’t have any practice time. None,” Irving said. “We don’t have any practice time, and the most games in January. We’re doing our best here to try to put something great here in a small period of time. Be patient with us.”

But in order for the Nets to win an NBA title this year, it won’t just hinge on how many points they score. Or if Harden and Irving can continue to prove the skeptics, myself included, that they can co-exist beyond the Honeymoon period. Their identity also hinges on if they are willing to take defense as seriously as they take offense. 

Only three teams won the NBA championship without finishing in at least top 10 in defense, including the 2018 Golden State Warriors, 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and 1995 Houston Rockets. The Nets have succeeded despite sub-par defensive performances, such as when they secured a 147-125 win over Oklahoma City. Yet, the Nets lack the same kind of depth and continuity as those past championship teams to make up for lacking defensively.

“We need to be a great defensive team,” Durant said. “Tonight, you’ve seen what we can do. We definitely showed spurts, and we can be better.”

The Nets opened the game with a 14-4 deficit. The Nets ended the game by nearly squandering a 10-point deficit in the final 1:55 merely two days after coughing a five-point lead to the Washington Wizards in the final seconds in a 149-146 loss. The Nets ended the first half by holding the Clippers scoreless for the final 1:44. The Nets began the second half forcing the Clippers to miss 10 of their first 12 shots.

Durant took on the challenge with guarding Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard in the post and behind the 3-point line. Irving took on the challenge with defending Clippers forward Paul George, who was stuffed at the rim by him twice. Harden took on the challenge in defending George as well. No matter. Leonard (33 points), George (26), Nicolas Batum (21) and Marcus Morris. Sr. still cracked double figures. The Clippers still shot 45.5% from the field while taking 20 more attempts.

And before Tuesday’s game, the Nets also showed that they have only excelled on area of the court since acquiring Harden from Houston. In the first eight games, the Clippers ranked first in total offense (127.3 points per game), while ranking 30 out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed (124.6), 29th in paint points allowed (52.7) and 27th in turnovers forced (11.1).

Durant said some of those numbers trace to “a lot of teams are making us pay off of small, mental mistakes.” Such examples might include not switching or helping correctly. But some of those numbers have to do with effort, which explains why Nash believed the Nets played better defensively against the Clippers.

Either way, if those numbers don’t improve, the Nets’ season will end in late spring or early summer.

“It’s got to be that way if we’re serious about this,” Nash said. “We have the luxury of offensive talent. But we have to defend.”

In fairness, the Nets have gone 7-2 since the Harden trade. They have tried harder against marquee teams (Clippers, Bucks) and have shown apathy in losses against struggling teams (Wizards, Cavaliers). In the playoffs, the Nets will not lack of motivation. But in the playoffs, teams will have more time to prepare and scheme to make life difficult offensively for Durant, Irving and Harden.

I still have a wait-and-see approach on if the Harden-Irving dynamic will work out long term. After all, Harden’s dynamic with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook played out well in Houston initially before it didn’t. But even if they maintain that level of sacrifice and offensive chemistry, any of the Nets’ stars will be due for an off night in a playoff series. After dealing Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert as part of the Harden trade, the Nets don’t have the same amount of rim protection and perimeter defense they once did. Barring a trade before the March 25 deadline, the Nets might have the same issue then.

“Once we get that down pat defensively, you’re talking about blowing teams,” Harden said. “Offensively, we’ll figure it out and continue to figure it out. Defensively, we have to figure it out. take pride and go out there and know we have to take care of business tonight, then more times than not we have a really good chance to win. We have to build that mentality and mindset every single game. I think tonight was a really good start for us.”

For better or for worse, the Nets will offer clarity in the next few months if they can produce a really good ending, too.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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