The Nets Pass Chemistry Test

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving showed no problems working together in the first round against the Celtics.
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In the waning minutes of Brooklyn’s 123–109 series-clinching win over Boston, the TNT cameras captured a terrifying image: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving leaning against a table, laughing and smiling, three healthy NBA superstars seemingly in lockstep with one another. For conference rivals, that image is as frightening as it gets.

The Nets are headed to the second round after mopping up the Celtics. It was a predictable outcome. Any chance Boston had of hanging in this series evaporated when Kemba Walker and Robert Williams joined Jaylen Brown on the injured list after Game 3. Any hope the Celtics had of forcing a Game 6 in Boston was buried under an avalanche of Brooklyn three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

Said Marcus Smart, “You can only do so much with what you’ve got.”

What the Nets got were answers. Some, anyway. Among the questions Brooklyn had entering the postseason: How quickly would its three stars jell? The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving played just eight games together during the regular season, accounting for just more than 200 minutes of play. Chemistry is a valued commodity for championship-driven teams. Brooklyn would have to develop it on the fly.

That chemistry looked pretty good against the Celtics. The Nets trio accounted for 104 points in Game 4. They added 83 in Game 5. Overall, the Durant/Harden/Irving combination averaged 85 points in this series. And it was the back-to-back-to-back threes midway through the fourth quarter against Boston that put the game (and series) out of reach.

“They are getting further along every time out,” said Nets coach Steve Nash. “Whether it’s good or bad performance … it leads itself to more growth.”

Said Harden, “There are some things that we [still] have to work on,” Harden said. “Obviously communication, where guys like the ball. That has to come pretty quick. For me, I pretty much know, but I think communication goes a long way. As long as we’re aggressive … and we can communicate with the rest of the guys on where to be, I’ll take our chances against anybody.”

Durant had a tidy 24 points (on 8–16 shooting) in Game 5, his lowest-scoring game of the series. But if the 32 points Durant averaged in January, his first full month playing in well over a year, after recovering from an Achilles tear in the 2019 Finals, and the 74 points he racked up against the Bucks in back-to-back games in May weren’t proof of Durant’s still-present skills, the 32.6 points he averaged against Boston were.

This season has been a snake-bitten one for Durant. COVID-19 protocols cost him time early in the season, a sore hamstring cost him more in the middle of it. But against Boston, Durant reminded the world that there may not be a more dynamic scorer. He ran the floor and scored in transition, he posted up and launched unblockable jumpers over smaller defenders and was better beyond the free throw line (64.7%) than he was from the floor (56.2%).

“It’s fun playing with two guys,” said Durant, “who can pretty much do anything on the basketball court.”

This season wasn’t a redemption tour for Harden. You don’t really need redemption after eight All-Star years in Houston, no matter how the final eight games ended. What it has been, at least during the 36 regular-season games Harden played in Brooklyn and the last five in the playoffs was a reminder: When Harden is healthy, there are few better players in the NBA. Against Boston, Harden averaged 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds. His willingness to be a playmaker—Harden averaged 16.6 shots in the regular season and 14.4 this series, a far cry from the 20-plus attempt seasons he regularly put up in Houston—is a big reason the Nets' Big Three has worked.

“He’s a willing passer,” said Durant. “His energy, he comes into the gym every day and it’s excitement to play basketball. That energy is infectious. You can tell everyone was drawn to James since the day he got here. His presence has been key for us.”

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Irving will always be polarizing. But his scoring skills are undeniable. Irving didn’t miss a beat this season, averaging 27 points while claiming the rare 50% from the floor/40% from three/90% at the free throw line distinction. In a tense series against Boston, his former team, Irving averaged nearly 25. In the aftermath of Game 5, Irving seemed to recognize the significance of what the Nets could accomplish.

“We don’t want to take any of this time for granted,” Irving said. “We know this doesn’t happen too often … three of the best scorers to ever play the game on one team and then you have a collection of guys who have done unbelievable things in this league as well, either coming off the bench or starting with us.”

Milwaukee is on deck, and the Bucks will present a more formidable challenge. Milwaukee is fresh off a four-game drubbing of reigning conference champion Miami. The Bucks have a two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a collection of high-level shooters around him. Jrue Holiday has been everything the Bucks hoped for when they swapped him out for Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton has established himself as a reliable second option.

Said Harden, “I’m thinking about them right now.”

Nash said the outcome of Nets-Bucks could come down to mental toughness. Harden agrees with him. “It’s not going to come down to X’s and O’s, schemes or plays,” Harden said. “It’s about detail and the small things. The box-outs, who can dive for the basketball on the floor, who is going to make winning plays. Whoever does is going to have a chance to win the game.”

Indeed. Brooklyn passed its first test. A stiffer one is up next.

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