NBA

Nash quietly helping Nets thrive in difficult NBA season

By Sports Desk March 18, 2021

When the Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the 2019 offseason, it was apparent that the team were destined to eventually become a juggernaut.

With two stars and the talent behind them to either keep a deep bench or trade for a third star, the Nets were always in position to become a contender, even with Durant sitting out last season to rehabilitate his ruptured Achilles.

Because of Brooklyn's pedigree, Steve Nash – the former two-time MVP turned first-year head coach – will not be considered for Coach of the Year.

But Brooklyn's road to title contention has been a bumpy one, and Nash has helped guide the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference – alongside the Philadelphia 76ers – despite challenging circumstances.

The Nets have won six games in a row to climb to 28-13, tied with the 76ers for the best record in the East, but it can be easy to forget the obstacles Brooklyn have faced in the first half of the season. 

One look at the Nets' first game of the season, a 125-99 win over the Golden State Warriors, serves as a reminder of this team's dramatic metamorphosis.

Spencer Dinwiddie started in the backcourt alongside Irving to open the season but played just three games before suffering a ligament tear in his right knee, ending his season.

Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Landry Shamet and Taurean Prince combined to play over 80 minutes in the season opener and only now remains in Brooklyn after the James Harden trade – Shamet.

Since the Nets traded away much of their depth, Nash has tinkered with line-ups and found gems further down the bench to supplement the team's star-power.

Bruce Brown, who was acquired in November for virtually nothing, has morphed into a versatile role-player who is very efficient from the floor.

Brown played a total of 13 minutes in the Nets' first seven games this season but has become a key member of the team's rotation, starting in 23 games and guarding much taller players in Brooklyn's smaller line-ups. Brown is shooting 55.5 per cent from the floor this campaign and averaged 18.0 points during a six-game stretch before the All-Star break. Brooklyn are 11-2 when Brown scores in double figures this season and 7-0 when he scores at least 15.

Tyler Johnson was also an afterthought to start the season, appearing in just seven of Brooklyn's first 24 games. Since then, Johnson has played just under 20 minutes per game while developing into a reliable floor-spacer, shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc this term and going five for eight from deep in his only start.

Journeyman Jeff Green is scoring 11.9 points per game since the Harden trade – compared to 6.1 before the deal – and has even started at center when DeAndre Jordan has been forced to miss games.

While Nash has been blessed with three star players on his roster, even the trio of Durant, Irving and Harden has faced hardships.

Irving took an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons in early January without communicating with the team first. While he only missed seven games, the mystery of Irving's absence left the Nets in a state of uncertainty and left Nash to answer for his star guard amid a barrage of media questions.

Nash showed the savvy of a veteran head coach and the sensitivity required in the new-age NBA by not vilifying Irving. A more authoritarian coach could have used the media to force Irving back, a move that may have jeopardised a relationship with a star player and eroded the trust of the entire team.

Irving returned with back-to-back 30-point games and is averaging career highs with 27.6 points per game, 52.0-percent shooting from the field and 41.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Then there is Durant, who has reminded the world that he may have been the best player in the NBA before rupturing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, but the former MVP has missed more games than he has played this season.

After two stints in league COVID-19 protocols, Durant has been sidelined for over a month with a hamstring strain and is expected to be out another week or two after having a routine MRI to track progress.

In all, the Nets have had 21 different starting line-ups this season, second only to the Houston Rockets' 26. That number is likely to increase soon, once Blake Griffin is ready to make his Brooklyn debut.

Only sharpshooter Joe Harris has played in every game for the Nets in 2020-21.

While Harden has been reliably excellent since moving to Brooklyn, Irving has missed 12 games and Durant has been absent for 22. The trio have been on the floor for just 186 minutes so far, less than 10 percent of Brooklyn's season.

Those minutes, however, have been transcendent, bucking a recent trend of power trios going through growing pains before hitting their stride.

With Durant, Irving and Harden on the floor at the same time, the Nets are averaging 120.6 points per 100 possessions. And while some pundits envisioned this offensive-minded trio taking turns in isolation plays, 64.8 percent of the Nets' field goals have been assisted when they all play together, more than when one or more of the stars is relegated to the sideline.

It is hard to deny Nash credit for the quick chemistry between Durant, Irving and Harden, and his ability to fill gaps with role players has kept Brooklyn playing well even when the stars are sitting.

The Nets' star-power makes Nash virtually ineligible to win Coach of the Year, an award that typically goes to an over-performing team that are good but not great. While Durant, Irving and Harden will receive accolades for the Nets' season, a lesser coach certainly could have derailed this runaway train given the numerous challenges.

Yes, the Nets have elite talent. But Nash has done plenty to maximise that talent while largely flying under the radar.

Related items

  • Haaland a combination of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, says Schmeichel Haaland a combination of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, says Schmeichel

    Erling Haaland shares many of the same qualities as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, according to Peter Schmeichel, who has described the Manchester City man as several top strikers "put into one player".

    Haaland produced an incredible display as City swatted aside Manchester United for a 6-3 derby win on Sunday, scoring a treble and teeing up two goals for fellow hat-trick hero Phil Foden.

    The Norwegian – who has scored 14 goals in his first eight Premier League appearances – has now scored a hat-trick in three successive home league games, becoming the first player to do so in the competition's history.

    After watching Haaland tear United apart at the Etihad Stadium, Schmeichel picked out similarities between the 22-year-old and several striking legends.

    "The biggest part of a good striker is patience. I played against some of the best strikers, and when they go missing is when you really have to concentrate," the former United and City goalkeeper told BBC Radio 5 Live.

    "The Cristiano Ronaldos, the Filippo Inzaghis of this world – they disappear then all of a sudden they get the chance.

    "When you look at Haaland, you see different players. That Zlatan-like goal, and Ronaldo is in there too. You see top, top strikers in one.

    "That is why he is so dangerous. He has the luxury of seeing many top strikers and they are all put into one player."

    Haaland's dominant display on Sunday saw him become just the 25th player to record five goal involvements in a Premier League game – and the youngest to ever do so (22 years, 73 days).

    In Haaland and team-mate Kevin De Bruyne, meanwhile, City have the highest goalscorer and top assist-maker in Europe's top five leagues this season (in all competitions).

    Haaland has already found the net 17 times this season, with five of those strikes being laid on by De Bruyne, who has a total of 10 assists in 2022-23.

  • 'Zach doesn't flinch' – Saleh credits returning Wilson after Jets see off Steelers 'Zach doesn't flinch' – Saleh credits returning Wilson after Jets see off Steelers

    New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh lauded returning quarterback Zach Wilson following Sunday's 24-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The Jets looked set for a third loss of the season when Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett scored two rushing touchdowns to hand the hosts a 20-10 second-half lead in Pennsylvania.

    However, the first-round draft pick threw three interceptions as the Jets had the last laugh, with Breece Hall sealing victory when he ran for a two-yard touchdown with 16 seconds remaining.

    Wilson – featuring for the first time since he suffered a knee injury in the Jets' preseason opener – was crucial to their revival, completing 10 of his 12 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in a brilliant fourth quarter.

    Speaking after the win, Saleh hailed Wilson's ability to handle pressure, declaring: "Zach doesn't flinch.

    "I'm sure there were a couple of plays he wishes he had back. But he got us out of a lot of bad situations with his mobility. I thought he played a pretty good game, [for] his first game back."

    Wilson himself, meanwhile, was delighted by the Jets' late show, adding: "All the ups and downs of trying to overcome adversity, it was just such a good win.

    "I think there was so much growth those last two minutes as an offense, executing a drive as clean as it was and punching it in. It was just awesome

    "It's just the NFL, man. We had some good things early, we scored, then things got stalled out. 

    "My mentality is just keep doing my job, keep chipping away. That was my message and that's what everybody did. 

    "There was some frustration, but it was the right frustration. That was a cool opportunity for us to lose a lead like that and come all the way back for the win."

    Asked whether he was convinced the Jets would get over the line on their decisive late drive, Wilson added: "Yeah, 100 per cent from the beginning. 

    "I think there was no doubt in our minds, especially when I hit a couple of quick passes, we hit a couple of runs as an offense. You could just feel it."

  • When Barca youngster Gavi burst onto the scene at San Siro When Barca youngster Gavi burst onto the scene at San Siro

    When Gavi made his international debut for Spain in October 2021, most onlookers would have been asking who this fresh-faced teen was.

    By the end of the game, they were still asking that, but armed with the knowledge that whoever he was, he was astonishingly good at football for someone born a month after Greece had beaten Portugal in the Euro 2004 final.

    Pablo Martin Paez Gavira made his La Roja debut against Italy in the Nations League at San Siro aged just 17 years and 62 days, becoming Spain's youngest-ever player, taking the record from Angel Zubieta, who had debuted in 1936.

    Head coach Luis Enrique popped the Barcelona midfielder in from the start against Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, and not only did he hold his own, he was arguably the best player on the pitch as Spain won 2-1 to end the Azzurri's 37-game undefeated streak.

    Almost a year on from that night in Milan, Gavi will return to San Siro with Barca to take on Inter in the Champions League having established himself as a vital cog for both club and country, despite only turning 18 in August.

    He recently signed a new contract at Camp Nou with a €1billion release clause, and Stats Perform has taken a look at what it is that makes Gavi not just the future for Barcelona and Spain, but also the present.

    From school to Cule

    Remarkably, Gavi had only made four starts for Barca before getting the nod for his country in that crucial Nations League game, showing the early impact made.

    His debut for the Blaugrana came just over three weeks after his 17th birthday in the 2-1 home win against Getafe, before making his first start in a 0-0 draw away at Cadiz.

    Barca may have been struggling at the time under Ronald Koeman, but the development of Gavi and Pedri as the potential future of their midfield reminded fans of the halcyon days of Xavi and Andres Iniesta dictating play for them.

    It was therefore fitting that Xavi actually came back as head coach, and not only did it improve the team's fortunes, but it cemented Gavi's place even further and guaranteed he would be getting guidance from one of the best of all time in his position.

    Naturally, given his inexplicably young age, the not-quite-a-man from Los Palacios y Villafranca continued to set records, or at least come close to breaking them.

    His appearance at Cadiz at 17 years and 49 days made him the second-youngest player to make his first start for the club in the 21st century in LaLiga, only behind team-mate Ansu Fati (16 years and 318 days).

    At 17 years and 80 days, Gavi became the youngest player to start his first Clasico in the 21st century, breaking the previous record held by Pedri set just a year prior.

    Then he set another record for his country, but only just, aged 17 years and 304 days, he netted against the Czech Republic to become the youngest player to score for Spain in a competitive game, beating the mark Fati set previously by just one week.

    Overall in his debut campaign, Gavi made 47 appearances for Barca (36 starts), helping them to finish second in LaLiga.

    This season he has featured in all seven of their league games, as well as both Champions League clashes against Viktoria Plzen and Bayern Munich.

    Arguably his most impressive achievement so far, though, remains that performance against an elite Italy midfield that had just won the Euros.

    Another Barella challenge

    He will come face-to-face with one of those midfielders again on Tuesday, as Barella and Inter welcome Barca to Milan.

    Barella has emerged as one of the finest midfielders in Europe in the last few years, playing a key role in the Nerazzurri's Serie A title win in 2021.

    Comparisons have been made between the Italian and Gavi, which may not make Barella feel all that good considering it makes him the veteran of the debate at the age of 25.

    Their well-rounded performances in the middle of the park at club and international level are well-known, but just how do they compare?

    Looking at the stats for their clubs last season, Barella made 48 appearances in all competitions for Inter while Gavi made 47 for Barca, albeit the former made 47 starts compared to 36 for the teenager.

    Barella had 16 goal involvements (four goals, 12 assists), while Gavi had seven (two goals, five assists), and the Italian was more of a threat in attack generally, creating 81 chances from open play compared to 25 from the Spaniard.

    He was also more involved on the ball, averaging 55.84 passes per 90 minutes against 45.15, though Gavi did boast a higher success rate, with 89.23 per cent of his passes finding a team-mate against 85.44 per cent from Barella.

    The Inter man had a better tackle success rate of 59.77 per cent to 49.77 per cent, but the Barca youngster claimed more interceptions (32 to 29) despite playing fewer minutes.

    The impressively combative nature of Gavi is also clear when comparing, as he committed 91 fouls to Barella's 37, which might not sound ideal but for a team that attacks as high as Barca do, tactical fouls are often vital to prevent swift counters.

    It appears Barella has the edge on Gavi at the moment as an overall package, but that is hardly a surprise given the latter is more than seven years younger.

    How their meeting goes at club level this week will be truly fascinating to observe, especially if Barella recalls their Nations League clash.

    It could be argued that Gavi continues to be underrated by some.

    With fellow prodigies Pedri and Fati also featuring regularly for Barca and Spain, while being more of a visible goal threat than Gavi, it is easy for him to get a bit lost in all the praise, though it does not seem to be slowing down his growth as a player.

    In late August, Gavi made his 50th appearance for Barcelona, becoming the first LaLiga player born in 2003 or later to reach this figure across all competitions.

    With his long-term future tied to the Catalan giants and with one of the greatest midfielders the game has ever seen guiding him, the sky really is the limit.

    People will certainly know who he is when he takes to the field at San Siro on Tuesday.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.