The Nets left home for a season-long, six-game road trip in fourth place, and came back essentially tied for first. Their welcome back to Barclays is the best team in the league, Tuesday’s clash with Golden State.
albeit losing to the only other top team they played (Chicago). With their offense a work in progress, they’ll get their toughest test yet against an 11-2 Warriors team that leads the league in Net Rating, Defensive Rating, and of course, record.
“We have to be an underdog defensively every night. Still got a long way to go at both ends of the floor, but we’re showing signs of improvement and moving in the right direction,” said Steve Nash, whose stint as a Warriors consultant paved the way for the Nets job.
“Golden State, they’ve put themselves out ahead of the pack across the league. They’re playing great basketball, found a group that fits really well together, has a really strong identity. You can see the positive energy that comes out of that group. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Kevin Durant won consecutive Finals MVPs with Golden State, and was on his way to a third when he ruptured his Achilles in 2019.
Now Durant — looking like an early-season MVP leader — is downplaying both his sore right shoulder and his reunion with Steph Curry & Co., praising them as the best team in the NBA but saying talk of Tuesday as a Finals preview is premature.
“It’s just another game,” Durant said. “It’s 15 games into the season. Obviously they’re the best team in the league, and they’re playing at an elite level, but it’s a regular-season game.
“We obviously want to go out there and win in front of our home crowd, but we’re not going to put pressure on ourselves and call this a Finals matchup. We’re not even looking at it that way. It’s another opportunity for us to build who we are, figure out what we want to do out there and keep pushing.”
The Nets have won eight of nine, and at 10-4 are just percentage points behind Washington. And they’ve done this without a second from Kyrie Irving. But Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Monday’s practice he isn’t the least bit surprised.
“No, when you have Kevin Durant and James Harden on the same team, that team is going to be good. They’re talented, and they’ve got a great leader in Steve Nash and just a good vibe about their team,” Kerr said.
The Warriors coach also said Durant “looks like the same guy. If I watched tape from three years ago and watch one for now, I don’t think I’d be able to tell any difference.”
But while the Nets are vying for the best mark in the East, the Warriors have the best in the league.
“They’re playing extremely well,” Harden said. “We know what’s at stake as far as who we’re playing against, and Steph’s playing at a high level right now. … So it’s going to be a tough matchup.”
Coming back after such a long road trip could be a task to avoid a mental letdown.
“Obviously, it being the Warriors and how well they’re playing together as a team is another challenge,” Patty Mills said. “Our defense is going to be tested, our communication is going to be tested. But a great challenge for us to see where we’re at, and where we need to get to. So looking forward it.”
Facing Curry — closing in on the NBA’s all-time 3-point record — the Nets have to keep building cohesion on defense, learning each other and where the help is coming from. And against the Warriors’ defense, they’ll have to keep trying to play fast and getting into their sets early
“Both ends, honestly — defensively and offensively, we’re coming together. And it feels good. It feels more fluid. It feels like it should,” Harden said. “Honestly, we’ve got a long ways to go and we’re still building on it. But it’s just a confidence and knowing each other a little bit more that’s helping us a lot.”