There was a point in Saturday’s fourth quarter, when Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant were on their way to scoring every Brooklyn point against the Miami Heat — all 32 of them in the quarter — that Irving said later, “That’s who we can be.”
What’s better than having these three great players on the same team?
Oh, I don’t know, a ham sandwich?
Let me say this before getting into the Nets’ gooey lab experiment and the entertaining manner they’ve drawn all NBA attention to this two-game set against the Heat Saturday and Monday:
I’m rooting against them.
This isn’t some homer idea involving the Heat. Nor is it a dismissal of how good Brooklyn can be as evidenced by its 128-124 win against a diluted Heat team Saturday night.
It’s about Brooklyn’s culture of self-indulgent ideas. I’m all for players maximizing their worth and directing their careers. But the league, the fans, the individual teams are defenseless against Harden’s shake-down in getting traded and Irving’s bizarre antics stretching now across three franchises.
Another thing: Stop with comparing The Nets’ Big Three to the Heat’s Big Three. The only overlap is the number. The world might’ve hated the Heat’s Big Three with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They over-celebrated their arrival. They flaunted their rings.
But the Heat’s Big Three arrived properly through free agency, carried themselves as pros, respected the game, set a trend of free-agent players picking their teams and — here’s the winning point for real basketball fans — elevated the full game of basketball. They each were two-way players. Offense and defense.
These Nets? Harden pouted his way out of Houston. Irving has played most of this season on Zoom in some mysterious mix of virus protocol and personal time. Durant left a champion in Golden State to have his “own team.”
And having Irving and Harden together is like having quarterback greats Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes on the same offense. They can innovate. They’re borderline unstoppable. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is notoriously hard on his team’s defensive standards, but wasn’t grousing after Brooklyn’s 19 3-point shots Saturday.
“All three of those guys are, they’re just so damned skilled off the dribble, shooting ability, ability to see open players,” Spoelstra said. “That’s why they’re three of the best in this business. Those are shots only great players can manufacture. I’ll look at the film but there are probably not many shots we could’ve defended better.”
The issue is Rodgers and Mahomes are asked to play defense with these Nets, too. Will they try to play it? Can they be hidden in a team concept?
This gets into the lab-experiment nature of all this: Can a team win on the sugar rush of offense only? And — here’s the real issue — do you want basketball to become just hat?
The league is trending to offense. It doesn’t mean it’s only offense, though. That’s similar to saying you build with draft picks and watching Philadelphia tank five years for draft picks. How’s that looking?
Offense is in, though. Look at the Heat. Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Herro — they’re far more offense than defense. But the Heat still build around two-way players like Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. They value defense as the offseason signings of Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless show.
Brooklyn had a strategy more than a defense on Saturday. It kept the Heat from taking 3-pointers. It had them pass the ball back into Adebayo, who finished with a career-high 41 points.
“They threw it in to Bam and he did his thing,” Durant said. “We followed the game plan.”
Nets coach Steve Nash knows he’s still on the learning curve with this team. It’s not so much Durant, who is a great defender and can fit with any style. The issue is how Irving and Harden share one ball in the backcourt.
“We want to avoid your-turn, my-turn, type thing,” Nash said. “So when either one of them is off the ball, they’re a threat, and a willing participant in cutting, screening spacing shooting catching driving — being a team that allows all five guys to be a threat and poses problems for the defense. That’s the philosophical goal.”
“A lot of us has been successfully individually and on certain teams,” Irving said. “But we’ve never been together. It’s not every day you see this collection of talent together in NBA history. We know we’re going to have the doubters. We’re going to have naysayers. That comes with part of the team. But we know what we’re about.”
Can it work? Sure with this talent.
Can it win a title? That’s the lab experiment I’m rooting against.