The Brooklyn Nets are adjusting on the fly without James Harden, but they were built for this moment one way or another.
A healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving led the Brooklyn Nets to an impressive win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. One year ago, every single Nets fan would have signed up for that without a second thought. Things have changed, in good ways and bad.
The good news is that James Harden is a Net. The bad news is that James Harden is hurt. Harden is dealing with a right hamstring tightness, which might not sound all that bad, but remember, this is the exact same injury that forced him to miss 20 games in April and May.
All of this is to say that the Nets can’t expect to have Harden back in this series. Hamstrings can be touch-and-go so head coach Steve Nash has to roll with a contingency plan for this Bucks series.
On the bright side, Durant and Irving are two of the three best players in this series and the role players for Brooklyn stepped up in Game 1. They have enough firepower to overcome Milwaukee even with Harden in street clothes.
More KD & Kyrie
Simply put, Durant and Irving are going to have to pick up most of the slack for Harden offensively. Irving will have to slide back into the role of primary ballhandler and point guard (barring a Mike James start) while Durant will have to serve as the top scoring option.
This isn’t rocket science. Both guys are going to be fine with the added responsibility. No doubt about it, Harden makes their lives easier, but they are more than capable of covering for him.
The added minutes could be more of a factor than the added responsibility. Both KD and Kyrie played 40+ minutes in Game 1. In fact, Irving was out there for 45 minutes in the win.
Better Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin may be the No. 1 reason why the Nets were able to weather the storm after Harden’s injury. Sure, his box-score stats were nice — 18 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and four threes — but the energy he brought was something that’s impossible to quantify.
An injury to a star player — especially in the first minute of the game — can have a deflating effect on a team. Griffin refused to let that happen, crashing the offensive glass and diving for loose balls.
This type of grittiness and toughness is much-needed on this Nets roster, but he’s going to have to assume a bigger role in Harden’s absence. Although he might not be the same All-Star caliber player he was in Los Angeles, Griffin still has a lot left in the tank.
Don’t let anyway trick you into thinking that “defense wins championships” in the NBA. It doesn’t. The fact that three of the top five defenses in the NBA are already in Cancun says something about today’s game. Offense is king and the Nets have it in spades.
This isn’t to say that defense is unimportant, but it’s not nearly as important as offense. With Harden in the lineup, the Nets are historically great. Without him, they are simply great.
Picking up the defensive intensity is one way to mitigate the loss of Harden. Brooklyn did an excellent job in Game 1, holding Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to 30 points on 13-for-42 shooting.
Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 34 points, but the two-time MVP is going to get his numbers. He’s too good to shut down entirely. Making sure Middleton and Holiday can’t join in on the fun is where Brooklyn can cut down on Milwaukee.