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The New-Look Nets Are Playing Space-age Basketball

Good luck stopping Kevin Durant and James Harden. Brooklyn’s MVP duo has been so good out of the gate, the rest of the NBA has to hope Kyrie Irving’s return slows them down.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nets’ first two games with James Harden have looked pretty similar, even though they faced two dramatically different opponents. They scored 122 points on 53.8 percent shooting on Saturday against the Magic, who have been one of the worst teams in the NBA since losing Markelle Fultz, and totaled 125 points on 54.8 percent shooting on Monday against the Bucks, who have the best net rating in the league. Brooklyn closed out both teams for narrow fourth-quarter victories, thanks largely to video-game numbers from Harden (averaging 33 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 13 assists, and nine rebounds) and Kevin Durant (36 points on 55.3 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists).

The two former teammates and MVPs certainly don’t look like they haven’t played together in more than eight years. Harden and Durant seem so natural playing off each other.

There’s not much a defense can do against two superstars who can create 3s so easily for one another. Most Big Twos in the NBA are more like Milwaukee’s pairing of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who lives around the basket, and Khris Middleton, who creates space for Giannis by spotting up at the 3-point line. A combination like Durant and Harden breaks normal rules and defenses alike. How do you stop two players who can score as comfortably from 30 feet as they can at the rim?

Durant has a lot of experience playing like this after three seasons alongside Steph Curry in Golden State. The difference is that Warriors coach Steve Kerr used his two superstars in an intricate ballet with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, moving them on and off the ball and making sure that all four players were involved in the offense. Nets coach Steve Nash has gone with a more straightforward and brutalistic approach in his first two games with Durant and Harden. He puts them in a million pick-and-rolls and isolations and has everyone else spotting up.

The change in the distribution of offensive possessions between Durant’s last season in Golden State and first season in Brooklyn is striking:

Percentage of Offensive Possessions

Play Type Golden State (2018-19) Brooklyn (2020-21)
Pick-and-roll ball handler 10.8% 18.9%
Off-ball screens 12.9% 6.2%
Off-ball cuts 10.2% 7.1%

The Nets offense is more like what the Rockets ran with Harden, which is not a surprise considering that Mike D’Antoni is on Brooklyn’s bench as an assistant to Nash. There was a philosophical disagreement at the heart of the rivalry between Golden State and Houston. Kerr, a disciple of Phil Jackson, never liked the simplistic nature of the Rockets’ offense, as well as the way that it turned so many of their players into bystanders. And just like with Jackson, it was hard to separate Kerr’s own success in Golden State during that era from the fact that he had so much more talent than his opponents.

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