Brooklyn’s three stars made their shared debut together Wednesday, flashing their immense collective potential at times before falling, 147-135, to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The double-overtime loss was a reminder that two major questions remain: Can the Nets stop anyone? And is Steve Nash up to the task of guiding a title contender in his first season as coach?
Conceding 147 points to the Cavaliers, who possess the league’s second-worst offense, is inexcusable under any circumstances, regardless of the extra periods. Seven Cleveland players finished in double figures, and Collin Sexton scored a career-high 42 points, including 20 straight for the Cavaliers down the stretch. Nash and the Nets, now 9-7 and owners of a bottom-10 defense, watched passively and barely adjusted as Sexton enjoyed his out-of-body experience.
“We had breakdowns all over the place,” Nash said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We know that. … We’ve got to improve with our communication, improve with getting guys into better condition. We feel positive that we can improve defensively, but it’s got to be a priority for us.”
Defensive issues were expected, particularly after the Nets parted with shot-blocking center Jarrett Allen and gutted their bench to acquire Harden. Brooklyn’s front-line rotation is thin, and starting center DeAndre Jordan is a far less effective defensive player than he was three or four years ago. But in the loss to the Cavaliers, Irving looked like the Nets’ weakest link on defense, not Jordan. Irving’s lack of physicality and inconsistent focus can have crushing implications, and Nash left him out there to be torched.
To make matters worse: Irving logged 48 minutes even though he hadn’t played in more than two weeks. Nash also leaned way too heavily on Durant and Harden. New York Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau might not bat an eye at playing stars 50 minutes in a meaningless mid-January game, but Nash must exercise a lot more restraint to align himself with modern best practices. Durant needs to be protected from this type of unnecessary mileage at all costs, no matter how sensational he has looked since the return from his Achilles’ injury.
“Too long,” Irving said. “Two OTs for the first game back. You’ve got to love NBA basketball, bro. I was just doing my best out there to pace myself.”
While learning to better manage workloads shouldn’t be that complicated, Nash’s developing relationship with Irving — who already has been fined by the NBA for skipping media day and for violating coronavirus protocols — will require extra attention and care. Coach and player didn’t quite seem to be on the same page during Irving’s recent absence, and Nash has adopted a hands-off approach to game management.
Nash surely can find success by empowering his three stars, but he needs to exert greater control in key moments. Even before the Harden trade, Irving too often sought to play hero ball in clutch situations. Irving is a fantastic shot-creator and shot-maker, so even his contested jumpers are good shots. But the Nets have Durant and Harden, two all-time scorers, and need not settle for just good shots in late-game situations.
Irving is wired to want the ball when games are on the line, and he will be ready when called upon. It’s Nash’s job to steer Irving toward more ball movement and to make sure that Durant and Harden don’t become bystanders. Late against Cleveland, Irving missed multiple tough looks in isolation and was called for a crucial offensive foul on a drive. No serious title contender should consistently let its third-best player take the outcome of games into his own hands. That’s a fool’s errand.
Perhaps Nash’s greatest coaching virtues are his ability to connect with his stars and his willingness to trust them in the same way he was trusted by coaches during his playing days. Yet Nash can still add value while letting his players run the show. Near the end of the first overtime Wednesday, Brooklyn had one final shot to win with the score tied and 1.2 seconds on the clock. Toronto Raptors Coach Nick Nurse has built his reputation on pulling game-winning rabbits out of his hat in precisely this situation.
Brooklyn’s play called for Irving to inbound the ball from the left sideline, for Harden to line up near half court and for Durant to come to the ball. Irving missed Durant when he broke free, hesitated and then finally passed the ball inbounds. Harden, expecting Durant to get the ball, barely moved. Durant had to settle for a tough turnaround deep in the corner with a defender draped all over him, and the shot came up short. Harden, a better passer than Irving, would have done better as the inbounder. Irving, a more elusive player than Harden, should have been the decoy and release valve if Durant was covered.
After the Nets ran out of gas in the second overtime, they fell to 5-5 this season in games that were within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime. Understandable for a team with a new coach and a new star trio that has faced some injury issues but not good enough.
Getting nitpicked like this is a rite of passage for coaches of superstar-laden teams. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra survived. Golden State’s Steve Kerr thrived. Cleveland’s David Blatt crashed and burned. This is Nash’s life now that Brooklyn’s stars are aligned, and he must adjust quickly to raised expectations and an accelerated learning curve.