Kyrie Irving took a pass from James Harden and drove in for an uncontested lefty finger roll to give the Brooklyn Nets 18 points in fewer than six minutes to begin the first game of the NBA‘s latest Big Three — comprised of Irving, Harden and Kevin Durant. They made their first 10 shots, an emphatic confirmation of our wildest expectations, putting the ball in the basket at will with three of the most prolific individual scorers in the world.
But rather than sit back and take the onslaught, acquiescing to the narrative on the verge of unfolding, the Cleveland Cavaliers switched up their stance, throwing a series of zone defenses and presses at the Nets to force adjustments. That, along with a virtuoso 42-point performance from Collin Sexton, eventually led the Cavs to a 147-135 double-overtime victory, spoiling the debut of the Nets’ new triumvirate.
“We started off hot, 10-for-10 to start. We got whatever we wanted,” Durant said after the loss. “They threw zone out there the whole rest of the game into the fourth, and once they released the zone we was able to get back into the game after being down 15 or 16. Against young teams, you know they’re gonna start throwing presses out there, zones, mixing up their defenses — playing more exotic defenses. You know, we’ve just gotta be prepared for it.”
The difficulty making adjustments was expected on Wednesday, with the Big Three playing together for the first time, but Durant’s comments express what will essentially be the main obstacle for the Nets offense moving forward. When things are going well, they’ll be nearly impossible to stop, based on the individual talents of their three best players alone. But as defenses make adjustments and Irving, Harden and Durant go in and out of slumps, how will Brooklyn vary its approach?
We saw a bit of this dilemma in the first half of the loss to the Cavs. Harden clearly looked to get others involved early, as he had in his previous two games with the Nets, and on Wednesday he scored just two points on two — yes, two — field goal attempts in the first half. Last season Harden averaged more than one field goal attempt every two minutes.
Harden didn’t want to force the issue, and his facilitating allowed Irving to put up 17 first-half points while Durant scored 11. Harden finished with 21 points, but he never really got into an offensive rhythm as he attempted to flip the switch in the second half and overtimes. Playing third-wheel for any stretch of the game is not something Harden is accustomed to, and you could see him struggling to decide when to take control and when to defer. All three stars looked like they were hesitant to force the issue offensively and wanted to make sure the others were comfortable, which led to some forced passes and bad turnovers, particularly early.
“I’m trying to get a feel for this entire situation. It’ll come to me,” Harden said after the game. “I’m not worried. I’m not in a rush — very, very patient. Things will come. That’s all it is — patience, communication and figuring things out, which we will.”
Just as we saw the balancing act required as three elite scorers try to keep each other involved, however, we saw the luxury that star power provides at the end of games. As the Nets erased the Cavs’ 12-point fourth-quarter lead to eventually force overtime, Durant had 11 points, Irving had 10 and Harden had seven points and four assists in the frame — each able to create a shot for themselves or a teammate seemingly at will.
Meanwhile the Cavs needed Sexton to be virtually perfect in the overtime periods to come away with the victory. It worked on Wednesday, but many times it won’t. The Nets, by contrast, have three All-NBA players to choose from to close out games — precisely why the front office made the trade.
So in their debut we saw both the blessing and the curse of having Harden, Irving and Durant together. It’s going to take a while for them to figure out how to play together and how to distribute the opportunities. At times, it’s going to be very ugly. Defensively, we can already see that it’s going to be a struggle — they’ve allowed 117.4 points per 100 possessions in three games with Harden.
But at the end of games, when most playoff fates are decided, they’ll have three players capable of getting the Nets a win, and they’re banking on the positives ultimately outweighing the negatives of three superstars sharing the court.
“We seemed a little lost at times, which is natural because we haven’t played together, so there’s a little indecision,” Nets coach Steve Nash said after the game. “But I stay positive. These guys, it’s their first night out together, just getting a feel for each other. This is gonna be a process that’s gonna take the entire year. While we’re all disappointed, we’ve got lots to build on, lots to grow, lots more opportunities.”