“Those three will play.”
Provided there are no more setbacks, hamstring tweaks, face/thigh contusions, leaves of absence or random inconclusive/positive COVID-19 tests, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden will finally take the floor again for Saturday’s matchup against the Chicago Bulls.
It is Brooklyn’s second-to-last game of the regular season before the playoffs begin on May 22, but will mark just the seventh full game the Big Three has played as a trio and just the first game since Durant strained his hamstring in Oakland against the Warriors on Feb. 13.
The Nets blew the Warriors out that night, 134-117, in a game Brooklyn led by as many as 28. Those types of landslide victories are now on the table once again as three of the best scorers and playmakers in NBA history take the hardwood for the Nets’ championship run.
“I’m just happy they are on the floor. We’re getting to finally try to create a rhythm with all guys healthy,” said veteran forward Jeff Green. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most. I’m happy that they are available to play tomorrow. We’ll see what happens from there.”
Harden, Durant and Irving have only played six-and-a-half games as a trio this season. The half-game occurred in a loss on Feb. 5, when an inconclusive COVID-19 test delayed Durant’s entry into a game against the Raptors and ultimately pulled him from the matchup altogether. The Big 3 only lost one other game as a unit this season: an overtime defeat in Cleveland via a 42-point night from Collin Sexton.
The remaining sample size, however, provides optimism for what the Nets can accomplish with their top guns healthy: back-to-back wins over the Heat; a victory over Trae Young’s hot Hawks; a four-point win over Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers in February; and the blowout win over Golden State the last time the three suited up together.
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“I just expect them to play hard, play together, and experience some moments together on the floor. It’s been few and far between,” said head coach Steve Nash. “I don’t necessarily have any expectations other than it gives us an opportunity to jell and play together and feel what it’s like to be out there again.”
This moment could have happened in Harden’s return from a hamstring strain against the Spurs, but Irving had taken an elbow to the face the night before against the Bulls. Nash said Irving was “clear to play” against San Antonio but was held out for precautionary reasons.
He will be monitored against the Bulls on Saturday, as will Harden, whose minutes restriction will slowly increase as the Nets approach the playoffs. The Beard played just under 26 minutes against the Spurs and logged 18 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
“It’s not like we want him to go out there and play 40 minutes,” Nash said. “I think we have to find our sweet spot as to how much is needed and how much we can protect him.”
Brooklyn’s Big 3 will shoulder the Nets’ championship aspirations, but the Nets are faced with an ongoing challenge of building chemistry among a group of players that have limited history playing with one another. That’s a less than ideal scenario for a team that hopes to make a deep playoff push, which will inevitably feature other talented teams that have been together for years.
Blake Griffin, for example, has been a key part of the Nets’ rotation but has yet to play with all three superstars since he signed his contract on March 7, while Durant was recovering from his hamstring strain. Second-year forward Nic Claxton will also play with the Big 3 for the first time this year after knee tendinitis delayed his season debut to Feb. 23.
The Nets don’t have much time, just two more games until it’s win four or go home. They will use their final two games against the Bulls and Cavs as practices (as they’ve done all year with this condensed NBA schedule) and rehearsals for the postseason.
“Starting (with Saturdays’ Bulls game) it’s about getting that chemistry with everybody healthy and then going into the week of preparation going into the playoffs,” Green said, “continuing that process of getting on the same page, figuring out what we need to do to improve that chemistry as we prepare for the playoffs.”