‘It Hurts’: Season Is Over Before Nets See How Good Big Three Can Be

Whether Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving may collaborate, share the basketball and play ok protection to deliver a championship to New York’s much less heralded N.B.A. franchise have been unknowns that nagged on the whole league.

Now, after being eradicated by the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night time in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal collection, the Nets can not hush their skeptics till subsequent 12 months. After a 48-24 season and playoff journey that lasted solely two rounds, the largest questions on their three stars stay unanswered.

Injuries overrode potential basketball points and neutralized the Nets’ standing amongst Las Vegas oddsmakers as title favorites. Durant, Harden and Irving shared the ground for under 43 seconds within the Bucks collection. In Game 7, with solely Durant as a reliable offensive choice and Irving in road garments, Milwaukee outlasted the Nets, 115-111, in extra time at Barclays Center, which inflicted a searing ache of its personal.

“It hurts,” Coach Steve Nash mentioned, lauding the efforts of Durant, who scored 48 factors in 53 minutes in Game 7, and Harden, who additionally performed all 53 minutes, regardless of a hamstring pressure. “I hurt for them more than anything.”

The N.B.A.’s 75th season shall be remembered for its Covid-19 protocols, recreation postponements and empty arenas for months. But the Nets turned the league’s largest on-court story after their acquisition in January of Harden from the Houston Rockets. Five years after General Manager Sean Marks was hired to rescue a franchise devoid of elite expertise and draft picks, Marks constructed a legit contender by assembling one of the crucial spectacular offensive threesomes in league historical past.

The bother for the Nets was not their defensive shortcomings, the depth they sacrificed to make the commerce with the Rockets, the dearth of obtainable apply time throughout the coronavirus pandemic or Nash’s inexperience as a first-year coach. It was this: In the common season, Durant, Harden and Irving have been wholesome sufficient to play collectively for under 202 minutes throughout eight video games. Their 130 minutes collectively in a five-game dismissal of the Boston Celtics within the first spherical proved to be their solely burst of continuity as a unit. Milwaukee received three of the ultimate 4 video games of the collection after Irving’s nasty proper ankle sprain within the first half of Game 4.

These playoffs have been imagined to be the Nets’ probability to shift a slice or two of cultural relevance to Brooklyn from Manhattan in a metropolis teeming with Knicks followers. In the tip, neither Marks nor Nash actually got here away figuring out what the Nets may actually appear to be when complete.

Some key moments that introduced the Nets thus far:

Entering the 2019-20 season, there was a lot hypothesis about the place Durant and Irving would find yourself. Earlier within the earlier season, Irving had dedicated to staying with Boston long-term, whereas Durant appeared to be on his approach to one other title with Golden State. As the world discovered after their seasons unraveled — Durant’s by an Achilles’ tear within the 2019 N.B.A. finals — they wished to play collectively.

The Nets had sufficient wage cap flexibility to signal them, in addition to their good friend DeAndre Jordan. The Knicks had the identical wherewithal, however Durant and Irving selected the Nets and took Jordan, who completed the 2018-19 season with the Knicks, with them.

Nets officers made the strikes figuring out Durant would in all probability miss his whole first season as a Net whereas recovering from the Achilles’ harm. Irving wound up enjoying solely 20 video games in his first season in Brooklyn due to shoulder issues. Both are actually midway by four-year offers.

The Nets shook the N.B.A. once more by hiring Nash as coach in September 2020. He had no teaching expertise, even on the assistant degree, however he received two Most Valuable Player Awards and was among the best level guards in league historical past.

He was primarily chosen by Marks, his former Phoenix Suns teammate, who felt he had the gravitas and communication expertise to handle the Nets’ two mercurial stars. Harden wouldn’t arrive till just a few weeks into Nash’s first season on the bench. The Nets additionally introduced in Mike D’Antoni, Nash’s former coach in Phoenix, to lend veteran steerage.

“I wasn’t hired to come in and be a tactical wizard,” Nash mentioned on a podcast hosted by the N.B.A. sharpshooter JJ Redick.

Hiring Nash, who’s white, nonetheless elicited criticism, given the dearth of Black coaches within the N.B.A., whose participant pool is estimated to be practically 80 p.c Black. Nash’s hiring got here after Jacque Vaughn, who accomplished the 2019-20 season because the group’s interim coach and had the Nets enjoying unexpectedly effectively with out Durant and Irving within the N.B.A.’s so-called bubble in Florida. Vaughn, who’s Black, stayed on as an assistant alongside D’Antoni and Ime Udoka. On ESPN, Stephen A. Smith called Nash’s hiring “white privilege.”

“Well, I did skip the line, frankly,” Nash mentioned at his introductory information convention. “But at the same time, I think leading an N.B.A. team for almost two decades is pretty unique.”

Harden entered this season as a disgruntled member of the Rockets. He wished out after D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the group with out a longtime coach and its high front-office govt, and Harden pushed for a commerce to the Nets to reunite with Durant, his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate. It was an audacious transfer for somebody with three years left on his contract — and it cemented the Nets as league villains when it labored.

Harden reported late to coaching camp to use strain on the Rockets to commerce him. Appearing to be in lower than optimum form made his disinterest palpable throughout the eight regular-season video games he performed. The Nets, off to a 6-6 begin, ignored Harden’s checkered playoff résumé and the rampant skepticism that one ball wouldn’t be sufficient to fulfill three high-volume scorers, and proceeded with commerce talks.

In a four-team commerce, Marks agreed to give up management of the Nets’ high draft choose by 2027 to the Rockets and deal two younger fan favorites, Caris LeVert (to Indiana) and Jarrett Allen (to Cleveland), to land Harden. As a bonus, the commerce saved Harden from touchdown alongside heart Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, after the 76ers supplied the Rockets a deal involving Ben Simmons.

The deal stays of venture for the Nets. Every 12 months and not using a championship will enhance the scrutiny and strain. Management should determine whether or not to pursue contract extensions with Durant, Harden and Irving that may price tons of of tens of millions in wage and luxurious tax or threat seeing any of the three decide at no cost company after subsequent season below their current contracts.

“This is just the start of our journey,” Joe Tsai, the Nets’ proprietor, mentioned on Twitter after the Game 7 loss. Known as one of many league’s wealthiest house owners alongside the Los Angeles Clippers’ Steve Ballmer, Tsai actually has the monetary may to maintain the core collectively.

During the pursuit of Harden and after his arrival, Irving missed seven video games in January for private causes. Marks mentioned Irving’s sudden unavailability and the acquisition have been “completely separate.” Yet the Nets felt it was pressing to maximise Durant’s championship window and made the commerce with that in thoughts, based on two folks acquainted with the membership’s considering who weren’t approved to debate it publicly.

The Nets knew they wouldn’t have a coaching camp to attempt to assimilate Harden into the group, however figured that by bringing in a sturdy participant, they’d virtually all the time have two elite gamers on the ground. It additionally turned clear, quickly after Harden’s arrival, that he was finest suited to be the group’s playmaker, based on one of many folks. Clear, even, to Irving.

“We established that maybe four days ago now,” Irving mentioned in February. “I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard and I’m going to play shooting guard.’ That was as simple as that.”

Cries that Harden was a luxurious merchandise for the Nets pale quick. The group went 29-Eight within the common season in video games that Harden performed and 12-11 with out him.

Health woes started virtually instantly; Spencer Dinwiddie was misplaced to a season-ending knee tear simply three video games in. Dinwiddie averaged a career-high 20.6 factors per game the season earlier than, and he was anticipated to be one more scoring menace on a group stuffed with them.

Durant overcame his Achilles’ tear in an enormous approach, ending his season with 49 factors towards Milwaukee in Game 5 and 48 factors in Game 7. But he wound up enjoying in solely 35 of the Nets’ 72 regular-season video games due to a hamstring harm. Harden, who was coping with his personal hamstring harm, missed extra time within the common season (21 of the ultimate 23 video games) and playoffs than he had in any earlier season.

The Nets have been rocked in April when LaMarcus Aldridge, a former All-Star they’d signed after he negotiated a buyout with the San Antonio Spurs, retired at age 35 due to a longstanding coronary heart situation. Nash used a franchise-record 38 beginning lineups in these 72 video games and 4 separate ones within the Bucks collection, leaning upon the well-traveled Jeff Green; Blake Griffin, a former All-Star who joined the group in April; and Griffin’s former Detroit Pistons teammate Bruce Brown.

For the playoffs, the Nets lastly appeared wholesome — for one spherical. Harden missed all however the opening minute of the primary 4 video games of the Milwaukee collection and lacked explosion or elevate in his legs when he volunteered to return for Game 5 after Irving’s ankle sprain. Green’s plantar fascia pressure saved him out of the primary three video games with the Bucks.

“It’s been a really difficult year,” Nash mentioned. “We’ve had a lot thrown at us.”

Even with the accidents and Milwaukee’s stars wholesome, the Nets got here inside an inch of advancing to the subsequent spherical. With one second left in regulation in Game 7 and the Nets down by 2 factors, Durant made a contested shot from the appropriate wing that gave the impression to be a 3-pointer for the win. But his toe was on the 3-point line, and it counted as an extended 2, sending the Nets to extra time as an alternative of to the Eastern Conference finals.

“My big ass foot stepped on the line,” Durant mentioned. “I was just seeing a little screenshot how close I was to ending their season on that shot. But it wasn’t in God’s plan, and we move on.”

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