James Harden was a candidate for his second NBA MVP award before being felled by a hamstring strain five weeks ago that still has him in recovery mode. Harden said he is convinced he will be back before the playoffs and the Brooklyn Nets can harness all their talent for a deep playoff run.
“I feel really good. Just trying to get my conditioning back, change of speeds, change of direction, make sure the power and quickness is there,” he said. “I feel like my voice is very, very important to the team, just to help guys, give guys nuggets here and there, try to stay involved as much as I can. It’s been tough. It’s been very difficult, being out as long as I have been in my whole career.”
The Nets had lost four consecutive games heading into Saturday night’s game in Denver, and their dynamic trio of Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant probably won’t play significant time together before the postseason. So, can they get it all together to reach their championship goals?
Harden is certain they can, despite the team’s recent skid.
“My playmaking and my scoring and my IQ and all that good stuff [brings a lot],” Harden said. “We’ve had a number of opportunities to win games that we didn’t win. It’s because of the little things that we’re not doing consistently. We’ve had some really good film sessions recently. One of the things that other teams don’t have is talent, so we don’t have to worry about that aspect.”
But the lack of playoff experience playing together could become a detriment. The Nets are an average defensive team at best, but they have enough talent to outscore any team. But will that prolific offense be enough during grinding playoff games against other elite teams?
“Skill-wise, we’re elite,” Harden said. “I’m not worried at all. You look at teams like Milwaukee, whose pretty much core has been together for a few years. They have been through playoff trenches. So, they’ve got that chemistry. They have been through tough times. We haven’t.
“If we can do the little things, it’s going to very difficult for teams to beat us. I’m looking forward to getting back. I love where we are as a team.”
The upside of Harden’s injury is that he will enter the postseason with a fresh body and approach. The 31-year-old Harden, for all of his detractors, has been durable throughout his 12-year career — though he has said his playoff slippage has been partly due to fatigue. That won’t be an issue this time.
“Going into the postseason, since I’ve been in Houston [in 2012], I’ve been playing heavy minutes,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me to get my body right going to the postseason with a clear body and clear mind to win 16 games. That’s what I came to Brooklyn for.
“You’ve got three of the most elite basketball players in the game today and probably that’s ever played in terms of skill-wise. That’s not the problem. The problem is the detail things. We know our roles. It’s not about scoring the basketball, but the other things. Once we get that, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Irving, speaking with the media for the first time since being fined $35,000 for not speaking with the media, said the four-game skid could serve as a benefit.
“It’s about time we got tested in terms of thinking the game,” he said. “Now we’ve got to think the game going against these good teams on the road. We need to be tested like that. We’re not a perfect basketball club. We’ve got to get continuity down the stretch. The iso-basketball in the fourth quarter is not going to get us over the hump.”
The Nets are likely to enter the postseason as the favorites to come out of the East, regardless of Philadelphia and Milwaukee, who have much more team playoff experience.
“We’re sitting in the second spot and we’ve had so many different lineups, that should tell you how great this team is,” Harden said. “The most important thing, if we can come to this postseason healthy, we’ve got a chance. And that’s it right there.”
DRAWN UP DIFFERENTLY
Coaching still involves more than numbers
The Pacers fired Nate McMillan after their first-round elimination in the bubble last year because the club wanted a more imaginative offensive and a less-rigid coach. Enter Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren, who was supposed to be the younger, fresher voice that would push the Pacers into the first division of the Eastern Conference.
Instead, because of injuries and dissension, the Pacers are clinging to a spot in the play-in tournament and Bjorkgren’s future is uncertain. The issues bubbled this past week in a home loss to the Kings when Indiana assistant Greg Foster and center Goga Bitadze got into a shouting match on the bench after Foster admonished Bitadze after a missed defensive assignment and Bitadze told Foster to “sit the [expletive] down” after hitting a 3-pointer on the next possession.
The Pacers started out 8-4 but have since gone 23-31 because of injuries to players such as Myles Turner and T.J. Warren, plus the trade of Victor Oladipo to Houston that netted Caris LeVert, who needed time to recover from cancer surgery.
Bjorkgren has been considered abrasive with his staff and stern as coach, and the Pacers have greatly underachieved because of chemistry issues. It hasn’t helped that McMillan has resurrected the Hawks as interim coach.
The question is whether the 45-year-old Bjorkgren was ready for such responsibility. It again leads to talk that coaching candidates of color aren’t getting the same opportunities as coaches such as Bjorkgren, Taylor Jenkins (Memphis), or Mark Daigneault (Oklahoma City), who were hired without head coaching or NBA playing experience.
Bjorkgren was hired because of the success of the Raptors under coach Nick Nurse. There’s a perception that NBA teams aren’t giving opportunities to former players and those who have been longtime assistants, such as Wesley Unseld or Darvin Ham, and instead opting for analytics-based assistants who may lack the people skills to succeed.
Such could be the case with Bjorkgren, who appears overwhelmed by this shortened, pandemic-influenced season.
“We’re in a frustrating stretch, a lot going on with the challenges of navigating through a season,” Bjorkgren said. “The competitive juices are flowing. Things like that will happen. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep the guys together and keep coaching. That’s my job.”
Time for Duncan to step forward
Overshadowed by the induction of the late Kobe Bryant and former Celtic Kevin Garnett into the Naismith Hall of Fame next weekend is the entry of Tim Duncan, perhaps the greatest power forward of all time, who was elected in his first year of eligibility.
Duncan shied away from the spotlight during his career and since his retirement in 2016. But he will be on the biggest stage next Saturday night at Mohegan Sun during his induction speech. Duncan won five titles with the Spurs, being tabbed the “Big Fundamental” because of his no-nonsense game.
Duncan retired as the model for an NBA star, playing his entire career in one market, and he would have been a Celtic had they won the draft lottery in 1997.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had nothing but quips and compliments for his former superstar, who was a Spurs assistant last season before stepping down.
“On a professional level, the most concise way to put it is: No Duncan, no championships,” Popovich said. “On a personal level, I love the guy. It’s a pretty incredible story. Everybody knows the story. But it’s true. We still toast him when we have dinner. Thank you, Timmy. It’s special.”
Popovich expects Duncan’s speech to be short. He has never been comfortable with the media and never gloated about his accomplishments. Duncan finished his 19-year career as a 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, and 15-time All-Defense, as well as three-time Finals MVP, two-time Most Valuable Player, and the 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year.
His career was remarkable but little is known about Duncan off the floor. He never marketed himself. He didn’t do commercials. He thrived on the floor and then went home.
“He really tries to stay away from those kinds of moments,” Popovich said. “He doesn’t like talking about himself. He’s never been a chest thumper or look for the camera or anything like that. He’s a homebody. That’s just who he is. I have actually not talked to him one second about what he’s going to say. I really don’t know how he’ll react, but I don’t think he’s going to be up there for a real long time speaking.”
What Duncan did for the game is revolutionize the power forward position. Duncan mastered the bank shot. He mastered the midrange jumper off the pick and roll. He mastered screening out for rebounds. None of those actions are celebrated like the 3-pointer or slam dunk, but they are just as critical to winning.
“Not many people use [the bank shot] to any degree,” Popovich said. “His size on top of shooting the bank shot was a pretty special thing. It was one of the first fundamental things everybody noticed about him, and it wasn’t an 8-footer or 10-footer, it was 18-20 feet, and his footwork was great. And he knew how to land it on the backboard. It was a rarity and it still is.”
What has steered players away from using the glass on jumpers? Popovich said it’s the league’s emphasis on 3-point shooting, something he despises.
“You could [encourage using the glass] when Timmy was playing, but in today’s game shooting bank shots from three is probably not going to be great, and we live and die shooting threes,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to practice banking from that distance. Maybe Steph [Curry] can do it, but I don’t know if anybody else can.”
What made Duncan one of the all-time greats was his work ethic and determination. He lived up to being taken first overall in 1997, teamed with David Robinson to win the franchise’s first title in 1999, and then was the franchise cornerstone as it won four more titles.
“He led by example,” Popovich said. “Even to this day, up until COVID, he was in the gym every day. It’s just how he rolls. With his teammates, he set the example of competing every day. He always took the lead. Even Manu [Ginobili] and Tony [Parker] looked toward him. He gave of himself in a very humble and quiet way.
“As far as the team was concerned, the championship teams were all kind of different. The core was there, but new guys kept coming in to round it out. He was the guy who welcomed them all. His standards were really high.
“Any coach that has their best player as a leader who’s respected by everybody and who can handle criticism makes the job much easier, so I was very fortunate in that regard. He was fun to be around.”
Trust the learning process
A few days before reliving the glory days with Duncan, Popovich watched as his team blew a 32-point lead to the Celtics as Jayson Tatum tied a franchise record with 60 points. These Spurs are fighting to get into the play-in tournament. The 72-year-old Popovich appears committed to leading the franchise back to prosperity, but it comes with considerable challenges.
“You have some tough losses in close games and you feel badly because some of the mistakes are almost inescapable because of the youth, but the effort is always there,” he said. “The young guys are open to coaching. They understand they have a lot to learn and it’s obviously a different challenge than winning championships. But the same thing is win and lose, whether it’s a .500 level or a championship level, you have to teach the right things to get to the next level.”
The Spurs played a flawless first half against the Celtics, only to make small mistakes as the game progressed, allowing it to go to overtime. It was typical of a team that loses as many games as it wins with a younger core.
“It’s a matter of experience, mental toughness, understanding there are a lot of plays, and that’s what the 48-minute game is all about,” Popovich said. “You can’t let yourself get down because if you let it affect you, transition defense is not as good, you’re not as physical in half-court defense, you get a little sloppy and try to make you do things too quickly on offense. It’s a tough lesson, but that’s the way it is.”
The Nets were fined $35,000 and Kyrie Irving was fined the same amount for the guard’s refusal to speak with the media. As one of the team’s top players, Irving is obligated to speak occasionally with the media. In the past, reporters would be allowed into the locker rooms to approach players for interviews. Now, if the team chooses not to make a player available or a player refuses to honor media requests, then fines are levied. In these Zoom times, player availability has been limited because teams are allowed to choose the players who will speak with the media following games and, more importantly, after practice. During a traditional practice session, several players could be made available or requested for interviews. In pandemic times, teams can choose one player to speak after practices and generally as many as three players after games. The limited access has allowed teams to shield certain players from speaking with the media . . . The Hornets may never get a chance to field a full roster before the play-in tournament and could be ripe for an upset. Gordon Hayward remains out with a foot injury, while Miles Bridges, who had played so well in Hayward’s absence, was placed in the health and safety protocol and could miss another 10 days. Devonte’ Graham has been bothered by knee issues, while key swingman Cody Martin has missed the past few games with a sprained ankle. James Borrego was in the Coach of the Year conversation just a few weeks ago before Charlotte was peppered with injuries. As good as Hayward has been, he’s played in just 44 games . . . Rookie of the Year voters will have to decide whether Anthony Edwards’s numbers for a downtrodden Timberwolves team are good enough to edge LaMelo Ball’s sparkling season with the Hornets despite missing 20 games with a fractured wrist. Ball likely runs away with the award if he plays a full season, but Edwards dropped 42 points in a loss to Memphis this past week and has averaged 23.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in 30 games since the All-Star break.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.