By Arnie Leshin
James Harden looks like he’s never been happier. He’s dealing with his new team as if it was a gift from heaven. He’s back to playing a full game, bringing the ball up court, hitting his patterned outside shot, driving to the basket, bringing down rebounds, handing out career-high assists, crashing the boards, and as serious as a probable post-season contender could be.
Then there’s the 6-foot-2 magical Kyrie Irving, who took off eight early-season games because of personal matter. Well, he returned with a vengance, up to his old tricks, behaving like a showman when he has the ball, firing up shots while being double and triple-teamed, breaking to the basket while leaving defenders behind, and just having a good time playing alongside his new teammate, Harden.
The 6-10 Durant has been sidelined for five-straight games, accompanying the team on the road for the five-game swing but hampered by a hamstring sprain that has made him the team’s premier cheerleader. He has pumped up the bench and those on the court. Before this, he had been playing like he’s in his prime. He’s been super from long range, taking the ball to the basket, and totally unselfish as have Harden and Irving.
These three National Basketball Association superstars have played together only six times since Harden, a versatile 6-foot-5 guard, was dealt from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets. There, he was unhappy, now he’s been more elite than ever. Recently, Irving told him that he, Harden, was the point guard, but he has been behaving like one since he arrived. He’s scoring with his outside efficiency, driving to the basket, bringing down rebounds, making steals on defense, and averaging 11 assists per game.
When asked after the Clippers’ game how he likes his new team, he smiled and said, “Love playing with these guys, love the coaches we have, we all get along big time, and I’ve never been happier.”
Despite missing time early in the season with personal matters, the 6-2 Irving comes on now like he’s having fun, scoring from inside and outside, finding teammates underneath for baskets, and. as he did several times in Sunday night‘s win at the Los Angeles Clippers, laughs at being double, triple-teamed by faking one way, and then tossing in a short jumper. He did the same in the previous triumph at the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers. He’s a showman when he has the ball.
And no doubt the 6-10 Durant is anxious to get back on the court, and he will. He says he’s A-OK and will be back when the Nets are home to Sacramento Tuesday night. Now they get a few days off, deservingly so after winning six-straight, the last five on the road that included back-to-back games over the red-hot Phoenix Suns and Sacramental Kings after opening at the Golden State Warriors. Then they hung out in Los Angeles to turn back the Lakers and the Clippers at the Staples Center. They began the streak by disposing of the Indiana Pacers before hitting the road.
They left for the road 3 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers. Now they are only a half-game behind Philly and have the second-best record in the East. They have now beaten the Clippers twice, and this latest one was against an LA team at full strength following a chain of injuries.
Harden, Durant, Irving, now a mutual admiration society.
It is a three-man team? That’s easy to say, but it’s not true. Joe Harris, the 6-foot-6 starting guard who was an All-America with 2016 NCAA champion Virginia, leads the league in 3s with 110, in percentage at 67.3, and is also a factor inside as a passer. He blends in
perfectly with the terrific trio. The 6-11 DeAndre Jordan has taken over inside since 6-11 Jarret Allen was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the four-team Harden deal. He had his best game so far versus the Clippers with 14 points, 11 boards, three assists, and five blocked shots.
Can’t forget 6-8 veteran Jeff Green. He’s 31, this is his seventh team, and he’s still tossing in 3s from both corners, finding open teammates, playing tight defense and just a true team player happy to be with his latest team. Then there’s 6-4 shooting guard Bruce Brown, a starter for the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers before the Nets signed him back in January. He’s smart, can handle the ball, is not known as an outside shooter, but he can penetrate, dish out assists, and play stout defense. .
There’s also 6-3 Tyler Johnson, a good outside shooter who tossed in four 3s against the Lakers. There’s 6-7 Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot who has been valuable with a good shooting eye that brings 3s. Plus, the team is still awaiting veteran shooting guard Iman Shumpert’s return to the court after a knee injury that occurred two days after it signed him in January. And the Nets also penciled in 6-7 Andre Robertson, who started alongside Durant when with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He worked out the last three days in Los Angeles and will be a good addition to the lineup.
Now the one player who is missing and will not be ready to go until next season is the 6-5 point guard Spencer Dinwiddle, last year’s leading scorer who had knee surgery in the pre-season.
Otherwise, Brooklyn is playing with confidence and first-year head coach Steve Nash is learning more day by day, game by game, after settling into this new position following his years as a Hall of Fame point guard. As an American Basketball Association team, the Nets won two championships behind Hall of Famer Julius (Dr. J) Erving, In the NBA, though, they are still in quest of one after falling short in back-to-back 2002 and 2003 season finals against the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs with the likes of Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, now the post-game commentator for the franchise.
The one knock on this Nets’ team has been defense. They score a lot, but also yield a lot. They lead the league in scoring, yet their defense hasn’t been that hot. But they have been improving each time out, and against the Suns, Lakers and Clippers they have been providing the evidence. Versus the Suns, they set a team record by coming from behind to erase a 24-pioint deficit. Against the Lakers, they held LeBron James and company under 100 points. Against the Clippers, they went up by six in the final minutes, then stopped a late LA surge with back-to-back steals and a pair of shot blocks from Jordan.
Last but certainly not least is Nash, the Hall of Famer from Canada in his first time as a head coach after retiring from two decades as a masterful point guard. He’s been patient, polite as usual, and has been learning the difference between playing and coaching. He has the respect of the players, has a good coaching staff behind him, and the way this team has blended together, he appears right on target to fill the bill.
Drum roll please . . . Television sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, a New Yorker, flatly announced on his show Sunday that the Brooklyn Nets are the best team in the NBA. He pointed out why, where and how they can win their first NBA title.