The Brooklyn Nets drew a clear line in the sand on Wednesday night, prioritizing extreme caution when it comes to the health of their superstar trio over a tiebreaker with the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Who can blame them after Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray's injury on Monday.
With Durant and James Harden already in street clothes, Kyrie Irving was in uniform on the bench when Brooklyn's reserves turned a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit into a one-possession game in the final two minutes. It was not enough to keep Philadelphia from capturing first place outright with a 123-117 win. The victory also decided the season series, as the 76ers won a second of their teams' meetings this season.
There are opportunity costs to resting a healthy Durant against the Sixers. The Nets are now essentially two games behind Philadelphia in the standings with 17 to play in the regular season. The East's top seed is the difference between a second-round series against one of a handful of middling teams scrapping for the 4-5 matchup or facing the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Beyond that, the absence of continuity for Durant, Harden and Irving has to be a growing concern for Brooklyn. They have played just 186 minutes together over seven outings in a 13-game span more than two months ago. It feels like less. They have not played as a unit in the final minutes of any game since Feb. 2.
They are also yet to play with buyout additions Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, who rested against the 76ers, too. The collective experience of that quintet should reduce the time necessary to build chemistry, as should their talent, but even great collections of superstars have traditionally experienced growing pains.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen played 1,690 regular-season minutes together for the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and still required seven games to beat the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round, as they ironed out the intra-squad dynamics of their late-game execution. It took a 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks for the Miami Heat's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to consider theirs.
Who is the alpha when the Nets have a must-score possession late in a must-win playoff game? Brooklyn has done an admirable job sharing wealth during the regular season. Durant has three field-goal attempts when Brooklyn is tied or trailing by three or less points in the final 30 seconds of a game. Harden and Irving each have two. They are 0-for-7 combined, and playoffs have a way of breeding distrust in egalitarianism.
Nets coach Steve Nash conceded that we may not see these Nets at full strength in the regular season.
"We may not get any games with our whole roster," the first-year coach told reporters prior to Wednesday's loss to the Sixers. "Nothing is promised tomorrow. I don’t want to worry about or be concerned about things that are out of our control. I also don’t want any excuses. You start playing that game where it’s like, ‘Well we haven’t had any games with our full roster,’ but in a sense, that’s irrelevant. We don’t control that."
Nash cedes that control to sports science. It tells him that Durant should not play the second night of a back-to-back after Tuesday's 27-minute stint against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He returned from a two-month injury absence last week. No player should understand the importance of load management more than Durant, who ruptured his right Achilles expediting a return from a right calf strain in the 2019 Finals.
Expect Brooklyn to take the same cautious approach with Harden, who has missed five of the last six games with a left hamstring injury and is expected to be re-evaluated over the weekend. Irving has been battling shoulder, back and groin injuries in addition to mental health challenges over the past two months.
NBA front offices, coaches and training staffs are already lamenting the toll the first 50 games have taken on their teams, describing this season to ESPN's Baxter Holmes as everything from "brutal" to "insane."
"Every dumb soft-tissue [injury] that can happen is happening and will only get worse," a GM told Holmes.
Starting Friday, the Nets are scheduled to play 17 games in 31 days down the stretch. They have four back-to-backs, no more than a day between games until May 9-10 and four games in six nights to close out the season. Time to ramp up Durant, Harden and Irving for the demand of the playoffs has already run thin.
As ESPN's Malika Andrews noted, no championship team's top three scorers have played as few games together as Brooklyn's triumvirate. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher played 10 regular-season games together before a dominant 2001 playoff run, but their Los Angeles Lakers were defending champions. This year's Lakers are banking on the ability of James and Anthony Davis to have that same recall when they return from extended injury absences in the near future. The Nets do not have that luxury.
The reasons for resting the three Nets superstars will not dissipate in the playoffs, when the pressure of 40-minute nights of highly competitive basketball somewhat mitigates the absence of back-to-backs. Priorities just change. In managing Durant, Harden and Irving throughout the season, the Nets are also asking them to physically flip a switch from extreme caution to maximum intensity, all while striking a chemistry balance.
There is risk in that, too. It just outweighs the risk of Durant, Harden or Irving suffering a season-ending injury before they get their chance to chase a ring together in the playoffs. Brooklyn could end up second-guessing itself when the Bucks come to town in June. Only time will tell, and the Nets are running out of it.
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