Despite not having won a thing yet, the Nets will open the playoffs Saturday against the visiting Celtics carrying the scrutiny of being favorites and the weight of championship-or-bust expectations.
The Nets say bring it on. Pressure isn’t a problem; it’s a privilege.
“Yeah, for me, basketball, sports — professional sports, but any level — is about pressure. It’s about playing with pressure, embracing pressure, enjoying pressure,” coach Steve Nash said. “That’s why I want you to be excited for the playoffs, because you have pressure. There’s real consequences. That’s what makes it fun. That’s why you put in the extra reps. Some people deal with it better than others, but the idea is this is what we all do this for: To face pressure and to do it when it really counts.
“It’s nice to do in the regular season. It’s nice in pressure moments in the regular season to succeed, but the most rewarding and the biggest challenge is doing it in the playoffs when it really matters. That’s the carrot, the bonus of playing in the playoffs, is that you get to face that pressure and get to try to overcome it. That’s exciting. That’s what our group is excited for and, and is looking forward to.”
The worst team in basketball four years ago, the Nets have suddenly gone from invisible men to great expectations thanks to finally having a healthy Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the latter off minute restrictions.
They earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and will face Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and the Celtics in prime time (8 p.m., ABC) before a crowd of 13,000 at Barclays Center.
That’s when the regular-season preamble gives way to playoff mode.
“You know the significance of the season, but I think all the great players in this league, they understand from Day 1 training camp is preparing you for the postseason,” Durant said, adding, “Every player who is expected to play in the postseason has been getting ready for it since Day 1.”
And going all the way this postseason is why general manager Sean Marks shoved all his chips to the middle of the table in the trade for Harden.
“We have high expectations for ourselves that we set going back a couple of years ago with some of the moves that we made to put this roster in place, and also including some moves we made this year,” Marks said on ESPN Radio. “I think we know what’s at stake. We’ll own it.”
Due to injuries, absences and COVID-19, the Nets’ Big 3 have played only eight games and 202 minutes together all season. No team has ever won a championship with its top three scorers having played that few regular-season games together.
The first time the Big 3 lines up with Joe Harris — back from his glute injury — and either Blake Griffin or Nic Claxton, will be the first time all year those five have played at the same time.
They have not had nearly enough time together to be at maximum cohesion. But they’ll find out if it’s enough to claim their first championship — the Nets’ stated goal.
“Someone said to me the amount of minutes they’ve played on the floor together is shorter than ‘The Irishman,’ ” Steve Nash deadpanned. “We know it. We accept it. We recognize it.”
But can they overcome it?
“Everybody in this league has been going through protocols and injuries and not having a lot of continuity with their lineups. That’s just the name of the game this year,” said Durant, who will likely spend time guarding Tatum after the Celtics star scored 50 points in the play-in win over the Wizards.
With Jaylen Brown out, the Nets will blitz the ball out of Tatum’s hands. They’re expected to dispatch the Celtics. And whoever is next. And whoever is next after that.
They admit anything less than a ring will sting.
“Without a doubt. There’ll be some part of me that says wow it was disappointing we didn’t reach our goals, as lofty as they may be. I do think it’s important to visualize the goal and own it,” Marks said on WFAN. “Let’s be honest: We’re not trying to make the first round of the playoffs. This team has loftier expectations and goals than that.”