NBA

Harden, Durant, Irving, Griffin and Aldridge: Brooklyn Nets dubbed 'the Monstars' in NBA title bid

By Sports Desk April 01, 2021

The Brooklyn Nets are well and truly stacked for a championship run.

If superstars James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were not enough, the Nets turned to the buyout market and acquired former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Nets now boast a combined 41 All-Star appearances on their roster – Durant (11), Harden (nine), Aldridge (seven), Irving (seven), Griffin (six) and DeAndre Jordan (one). On the all-time list, only the Boston Celtics have managed more, across three different teams in 1977-78 (42), 2011-12 (43) and 2010-11 (56).

Jason Collins was part of the franchise, then known as the New Jersey Nets, that reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, and he told Stats Perform News: "I know KD and James have played together in the past [with the Oklahoma City Thunder]. Kyrie, at this point, realises this team is something special, especially when you're adding Blake and LaMarcus, and already have DeAndre Jordan.

"All of these guys recognise they are playing for a championship. They might only get one shot, these newer guys who haven't already won. This team reminds of me of the Houston Rockets from a few years ago when they had Chris Paul, who was clicking on all cylinders, and Harden. Then Chris got injured. They had a shot to beat the Golden [State] Warriors that season.

"Now, you see with the Nets – you have these tremendous playmakers. If one goes down or has an off night, oh by the way, you have two other guys who can make plays and for team-mates who are former All-Stars. They have a squad right now. I know Space Jam is coming out soon, maybe we're getting a glimpse at the Monstars."

The foundations were set last season, when Durant – recovering from an Achilles injury that meant he sat out the entire 2019-20 campaign – and Irving made the move to Brooklyn via the Golden State Warriors and Celtics respectively. But the Nets cemented 'superteam' status after trading for former MVP Harden in January.

There were question marks when first-year head coach Steve Nash and the Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets, with the three-time NBA scoring champion, Durant and Irving predominately ballhandlers.

Harden, Durant and Irving, however, have managed to make it work in the small time spent on court together – Durant has been absent since February due to a hamstring injury, having also sat out because of health and safety protocols, while Irving has also missed time this season.

Per 100 possessions, Harden – who has a franchise record-equalling 12 triple-doubles this season – has been averaging 21.1 points, 15.1 assists, 9.4 rebounds and 13.9 field-goal attempts when sharing the court with Durant and Irving.

Durant's numbers read 32.8, 3.5, 9.2 and 23.8, while Irving is averaging 31.3, 5.5, 6.7 and 21.3 at the same time.

Despite the continued absence of former MVP and two-time NBA champion Durant, the Nets have won 19 of their past 22 games to top the Eastern Conference.

Prior to Wednesday's win over the Houston Rockets, the Nets have been leading the NBA in points per game and field goal percentage this season – only the Stephen Curry-led Warriors (2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018) and the Nash-led Suns (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010) have managed to do that in the last 30 years. As of March 30, the Nets were also leading the league in points.

In terms of effective field-goal percentage, the Nets (57.6 as of March 30) are on pace to set an NBA record, which would eclipse the 2017-18 Warriors (56.9).

"For all the injuries and the games that have been missed by one or all of those superstars, they have been doing great. Especially when you have new talent coming in, new pieces," said Collins, who spent his first seven years in the NBA with the Nets before leaving in 2008 and returning briefly in 2014. "It takes a while. Sometimes it can take half a season and in this shortened season, they're doing great. You have to tip your cap to the players, but the coaches, they are doing an excellent job making sure all the pieces are fitting.

"You're still adding the mix with LaMarcus and Blake. It seems he has found his ability to jump and dunk, it's glad to see his body is responding well. It's pretty obvious to see with this team that they're not necessarily playing for positioning in the regular season, this team is built for the postseason. That is why I think they're being so cautious with KD and his return. My hats off to Kyrie Irving for recognising that he needs to step away from time to time.

"With Harden, in his mind he is the MVP. A lot of people who follow the NBA are recognising the James Harden who started the season with the Houston Rockets, that guy is no longer in the building. The guy in the building in Brooklyn is the guy we have seen for the past several years, who is an MVP candidate."

Harden's 11.2 assists per game this season is on pace to be the most by a player averaging 25.0-plus points since Tiny Archibald averaged 11.4 in 1972-73 (as of March 30). He, Irving and Durant dominate the headlines, but the likes of Joe Harris, Nicolas Claxton, Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet have proved to be an effective support cast in a further sign of frightening depth.

"When you're going to go up against them [Durant, Harden and Irving], you're going to have to leave someone open and it's going to be those other guys. I think Shamet will be huge in the playoffs, Harris also," Collins, the 42-year-old former center, said.

"Just because of reputation, you're going to be hesitant to leave DeAndre Jordan, if you're the center, you know you can't let him get behind because you know it will be a dunk. So, you're afraid to step up and help. With those big three, you're not going to leave them either so it's going to be the others on the guard – a shooter or somebody who is going to get a lot of good looks."

Eyebrows were raised when the Nets appointed two-time MVP Nash to replace Kenny Atkinson ahead of the season, despite his lack of coaching experience.

The Nets were coming off a first-round playoff exit inside the Orlando bubble last season when they handed Hall of Famer Nash his first head coaching role.

But Nash – supported by veteran Mike D'Antoni in Brooklyn – has impressed from the outset, juggling a superstar trio, injuries and the coronavirus pandemic in the pursuit of NBA glory.

An NBA ring eluded Nash during his stellar playing career, but a championship in his first season as head coach would see him follow in the footsteps of Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse (2019), Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016), Warriors counterpart Steve Kerr (2015), Pat Riley (Los Angeles Lakers in 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers in 1980) – who are the last five men since 1977 to achieve the feat.

"I think he was thrown into the deep end but as athletes and competitors, you kind of like being thrown into the deep end because that's what you work hard for," Collins said. "He isn't alone, he has great staff and players who have played at the highest level. It's definitely a group effort.

"I have to add, nothing would be possible without ownership. Ownership in the NBA is so important. Joe Lacob has done a phenomenal job with the Golden State Warriors. Also now Joseph Tsai with the Brooklyn Nets. He has told [general manager] Sean Marks, do what you need to do to create this culture and you'll have support. It's just great to see when an organisation, from ownership, to general manager, to team president, head coach, assistant coach and it all falls in line. You're setting yourself up for success."

The Nets have never won a championship since their first NBA season in 1976-77 – a run of 44 consecutive seasons. Byron Scott's team – featuring Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Collins – came close in the early 2000s, but in two appearances in the Finals they were swept by the Lakers and beaten 4-2 by the San Antonio Spurs.

Among active streaks in the league, the Nets have the eighth-longest drought alongside the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, behind the Sacramento Kings (69). Their rivals, the New York Knicks, have been waiting 47 years.

"The elephant in the room that we're all dealing with [the pandemic]," Collins said. "I can't think of any other part of our country hit harder than New York City. To end this year in the pandemic, if they were to win a championship, it would give so much hope to a lot of people. I lost one of my uncles to COVID recently and he lives in New York. People are still being affected and dying. It would mean a lot just to see the Nets win a championship for the city of New York.

"I think it will be huge if the Nets are able to win. It's all set up because they now have the target on their back with all the All-Stars on their team. Even if they don't get the number one seed, even if they finish at number three or four, which I doubt they will, they will still have the target on their back because they have all those names.

"If they are playing at all cylinders, they have the best chance out of the east. I love what Doc Rivers is doing in Philadelphia and I love the season Joel Embiid was having before injury.

"I'm really looking forward to that Eastern Conference championship between the Nets and 76ers, no disrespect to the others. I think the Nets just have more horses than the other squads."

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    Erling Haaland has not been impacted by the transfer rumours amid Borussia Dortmund's Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City, according to Edin Terzic, who also ruled Jadon Sancho out of Wednesday's second leg.

    Dortmund host City having lost 2-1 in Manchester last week and the omens are not bad for BVB, as in the Champions League the team that won the first leg 2-1 at home has been eliminated more often (15) than they have progressed (12).

    Terzic's side will also be confident that Haaland will not have such a quiet evening in front of goal again, as he only managed one shot in Manchester – it was a wonderful opportunity as well with an xG value of 0.4, meaning the average player would be expected to take it 40 per cent of the time.

    By Haaland's standards – he has nine open-play Champions League goals from an xG value of just 5.7 in 2020-21 – it was a brilliant chance to hammer home why he has received so much praise and attention this season, although he did manage the assist for Marco Reus' goal at the Etihad Stadium.

    Some of that attention has developed into incessant transfer speculation, with his agent Mino Raiola spending part of the recent international break talking to potential suitors.

    City, whom his dad Alf-Inge played for, have been suggested as being among those keen and Terzic is convinced all the chatter has not impacted him, despite Haaland being without a goal for club or country since March 20.

    "I didn't notice anything and it wasn't even an issue for us," Terzic said of the rumours during the international break.

    "He was very happy to come back from the national team. He was happy to see all the faces and they were happy to see him.

    "He did very well last time [against City]. He is known for making good runs from deep, but he also gave us a few seconds of possession. He often secured the ball well; he is a very important part of our team."

    Terzic – who is only in charge until the end of the season when Marco Rose will take over – was not about to get drawn into the debate around Haaland's future by putting a valuation on him, however.

    "As a coach, I have to get the best out of him, that's my job. It's not my job to put a price tag on him," he said. "I have to get the best out of the team and want to advance to the next round."

    Just as he missed the first leg, Sancho will also be unavailable against his former team on Wednesday – and he could yet be joined by others in missing out.

    "We have a few ailing players where we have to wait and see," Terzic added. "Mats Hummels and Marco Reus had to be replaced last time. It won't be enough [time] for Jadon, otherwise we'll have to see."

  • Guardiola trusts players to take 'next step' in Champions League: 'If not, I'd be crazy' Guardiola trusts players to take 'next step' in Champions League: 'If not, I'd be crazy'

    Pep Guardiola insists he trusts Manchester City to take the next step in the Champions League, adamant he would be "crazy" not to have that belief ahead of Wednesday's quarter-final second leg.

    City go to Borussia Dortmund with a 2-1 lead from last week's home leg, meaning the Germans will be quietly confident of pulling off an upset given they managed an away goal.

    While City have progressed from 13 of their 15 knockout ties in European competition when winning the first leg, in the Champions League the side that won the first leg 2-1 at home has been eliminated more often (15) than they have progressed (12).

    The tie is in the balance and Guardiola knows too well to take anything for granted given City have been eliminated at this stage of the competition in each of the previous three seasons.

    In 2019-20 they were dumped out at the hands of Lyon, a defeat that led to serious questions being asked of Guardiola and his management of such games, with some suggesting he overcomplicates life for himself.

    Ahead of the second leg, the focus was more on the players rather than the Catalan's preparations, and Guardiola was unequivocal when asked about trusting the team.

    "After 27 victories in 29 games, if I don't trust the players we have a big problem – I would be crazy," he said in his pre-game news conference on Tuesday.

    "Tomorrow we can win or lose. What we have done so far, we deserve to be where we are now. We know if we win we go through or lose we are out. In the Premier League we need three wins and a draw to be champions because we expect United to win seven in a row.

    "If we go out, we will be disappointed but we have another chance. Life is like this. If you fight you get another opportunity. We are going to try.

    "We lose against Lyon, we were better, but we were out. We are fighting for four competitions, especially the Premier League. We are already qualified for the Champions League, 11 years in a row, which has never happened before [for City]. That is fantastic.

    "Now is the time for another step, the players want it. They were sad when we didn't get to the semi-finals [in 2019-20] but nobody will give it to us, we have to do it.

    "Nobody gives you the semi-finals, we have to do it in 90 minutes if we don't do mistakes like against Lyon when we give them three goals. I'm so excited to travel to Germany, to try to do it."

    City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan struck a similar chord when he addressed the media prior to Guardiola, as the former Dortmund star suggested they gifted Lyon the 3-1 win in August.

    "For me it's important to take the next step, not just the experiences we had in the last few years, but also I have expectations of myself and team-mates and I know we have a great team and are capable of going into the semi-finals," he said. "We should have been there earlier in the last few seasons but we were lacking something, individual mistakes which led to goals - and it's tough.

    "I feel we are much more stable at the moment this season, especially defensively, the more you proceed in this competition the more important it gets. It gives you a safe feeling when you know your defence and goalkeeper are working very well. Combined with the feeling we know we're always able to score it's a great potential."

    While he accepts there has been progress, Gundogan feels they have to show that improvement extends to their character, having appeared emotionally fragile at times over the past few years.

    "I feel sometimes this is the case, we need to learn it's normal to struggle," he continued. "On that stage, playing against the best teams in Europe, it's normal, everyone has quality.

    "It's normal to concede a goal, we're not used to running behind a goal. Conceding or struggling, we're used to dominating games and having possession, but it's normal in Champions League and Premier League there are games it might not be that easy. Mistakes are normal.

    "Learning to deal with it is the only thing that was missing when we speak of those Tottenham games [in 2018-19]. Just dealing with those situations is something we might need to learn still, these stages will show it now. It's something we need to accept."

  • Klopp accepts empty Anfield is a 'problem' but challenges Liverpool to believe Klopp accepts empty Anfield is a 'problem' but challenges Liverpool to believe

    Liverpool's hopes of producing another famous European comeback at Anfield will be reduced due to the lack of fans, manager Jurgen Klopp has conceded.

    The Reds lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie in the Spanish capital, leaving them with an arduous task to reach the last four.

    Liverpool have only progressed twice in the previous 13 European knockout ties in which they lost the first leg by at least two goals, the most recent example coming two years ago when they stunned Barcelona with a 4-0 win at Anfield after losing the first game 3-0.

    Anfield has become much less of a fortress this season while games have been played behind closed doors, with last weekend's 2-1 win over Aston Villa ending a six-game losing streak at home in the Premier League for the English champions.

    Klopp accepts it is a blow to play without the backing of the crowd but he hopes his players still believe in their chances.

    "When you're 3-1 down, it looks like you're already out," he said on Tuesday. "That means you have not a lot to lose, so we will give it a try. It's exactly how we'll go for it.

    "It's a result of the performances of the night: they were better than us and we were not as good as we could have been, or should have been. But it's the first leg.

    "It's just one extra problem: no supporters in the stadium. The result is a problem, the quality of the opponent is a problem, and obviously that the stadium is empty is a problem as well.

    "It's always about winning football games and that is the target. If that will end up in a comeback, I have no idea.

    "We have to be in a mood to start believing again and, if that happens and we can see that it's possible, then we have a chance, but it's still incredibly difficult."

    Real Madrid have scored in each of their previous 23 Champions League knockout matches and an away goal would put them in a commanding position to progress.

    While Klopp would love to keep a clean sheet, he is not certain any side can keep Madrid at bay if they are at their best.

    "The clean sheet is very important but that's not too different to other games – you never want to concede goals," he said.

    "I have no idea [if there is] anyone in the world who can deny Real Madrid having any chances.

    "They beat us and then they beat Barcelona in a very important game so they are obviously in a good moment. We have to be 100 per cent on our top level if we want to make it.

    "With the quality that Real Madrid has you have to defend on your absolutely highest level and that is what we didn't do in the first leg."

    Vinicius Junior produced arguably his best performance for Madrid in the first leg, scoring either side of Marco Asensio's goal to give Zinedine Zidane's side men the advantage.

    Klopp, who was not surprised by the Brazilian's display, wants his team to control the passing threat of Toni Kroos better in order to prevent a repeat.

    "He is an outstanding talent, everybody knew it before Real Madrid signed him [from Flamengo in 2018]," he said.

    "The one goal we could have defended but the other was just a great long ball and then a great first touch and finish.

    "We have to try to avoid the passes in his direction, which is a big task. [I was] impressed yes, surprised no."

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