NBA

NBA playoffs 2021: Brooklyn Nets quell chemistry concerns as Big 3 gel

By Sports Desk June 03, 2021

Few teams have ever entered the NBA playoffs with more uncertainty and intrigue than the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets.

On the surface, it's almost unfathomable to consider a team that finished just one game back of the conference's best record could have so many questions marks, but when its three star players appeared in just eight games together in the regular season – and only one (ONE!) contest since the middle of February – it's not difficult to see why there were so many unknowns.

During the regular season, the Nets' power trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving appeared on the court together for just over three and a half hours. By comparison, the last 'Big 3' Durant was a part of – the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors – he, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson played over 23 hours together during the regular season. The Warriors' threesome reached the 200-minute mark before the calendar flipped to November, so the Durant-Harden-Irving trio are essentially in early season mode – and again, they only appeared in one game together over the season's final two months.

So with all eyes on Brooklyn in its first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, it took all of one game for the trio to find their chemistry.

The Nets got past a Celtics team playing without its second-leading scorer in Jaylen Brown in the playoff opener, though it wasn't exactly an offensive showcase. Brooklyn led by just three points five minutes into the fourth quarter before Durant, Harden and Irving scored 19 of the team's final 22 points to lead the Nets to a 104-93 win.

After passing their first test, the offense aced its last four in dispatching the Celtics in five games, with Boston needing an exceptional 50-point performance from Jayson Tatum in Game 3 to avoid being swept.

In the final four games of the series, the Nets averaged 143.3 points per 100 possessions when Durant, Irving and Harden were together on the court – a total of 105 minutes, 56 seconds. As a team, Brooklyn shot 56.8 per cent from the field and 52.1 from 3-point range to go with an eFG percentage of 67.2 and a 28.7 assist rate when the three played together.

This came after their Game 1 tuneup as Brooklyn had an offensive rating of 113.4 in the 23 minutes 48 seconds the three were together on the court, shot 48.7 per cent from the floor, made five of 20 3-point attempts, had a 55.1 eFG percentage and 19.6 assist rate.

The offense has been playing on another level since then, averaging 128.3 points and a coveted 50-40-90 shooting percentage slash line – 51.6 per cent from the field, 47.4 from 3-point range and 91.7 on free throws.

They are the first team since the advent of the 3-pointer in the 1979-80 season to score at least 115 points, hit at least 15 3-point shots and make at least 20 free throws in four straight games. That's including the regular season, not just four straight games in a single playoff series or four games in a row in a single postseason – all games.

The Nets held an offensive clinic in a 141-126 Game 4 win on Sunday, shooting 57.8 per cent while making 17 of 27 shots from beyond the arc (59.3 per cent) and 29 of 30 foul shots (96.7). In the process, Durant scored 42 and made all 11 of his free throw attempts while Irving added 39 and converted all 11 of his foul shots, making them the first pair of team-mates in NBA history to score 35 or more points while going 10 of 10 or better from the free-throw line in a game – regular or postseason.

All Harden did in that one was dish out 18 assists – his most for any game, regular or postseason – and score 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

In the five games against Boston, Durant averaged 32.6 points, Harden 27.8 and Irving 24.8. Their combined average of 85.2 points is the most by any trio in any playoff series all-time – one more than Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Rudy LaRusso averaged for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1962 Western Division Finals.

With Durant, Harden and Irving together, Brooklyn is able to create scoring opportunities by spacing the floor, which is paying dividends for Harden.

In the last four playoff games, Harden made 51.5 per cent of the jump shots (17 of 33) he took from 15 feet or more from the hoop – the fifth highest rate in the league among the 35 players with a minimum of 25 such shots since May 25. He made just 37.1 per cent of such shots during the regular season to rank 125th out of 192 players with a minimum of 200 attempts..

The jump shot, meanwhile, has long been a friend of Durant, and he has been knocking down his jumpers at an astounding clip since Game 1.

Among those with a minimum of 25 jump shots attempted from 15 feet or more from the hoop since May 25, Durant leads all shooters by connecting on 61.4 per cent of his shots (27 of 44). His 6.8 made jump shots from 15 or more feet out are only just behind the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic at 7.0 for tops in the league since May 25. This came after Durant shot 46.9 per cent on these same jumpers and averaged 4.1 makes per game during the regular season.

With Harden proving to be a more efficient scorer away from the basket, defences now must respect his jump shot. The problem is, he's still as dangerous as ever to drive and either dish it out – his 17 assists to Durant are the second most by any one player to a team-mate this postseason behind Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo's 18 assists to Nickola Jokic – or finish at the rim.

Harden is connecting on 73.7 per cent of his 19 layup attempts this postseason after converting 58.4 per cent of them in the regular season. Like Harden, Irving is also successfully finishing at the hoop, making 60.9 per cent of his 23 layup attempts.

Brooklyn's Big 3 has quickly established a cohesiveness on the court and looks every bit of the offensive juggernaut many envisioned was possible when the team acquired Harden back in January.

One criticism against the Nets all season has been their defense – or lack thereof. The counterpoint to that is that it doesn't matter how many points you give up as long as you score more. And with Durant, Harden, Irving and the Brooklyn offense firing on all cylinders, the Nets certainly have the capability to pile up more points than anyone.

This theory will be put to the test Saturday when Brooklyn opens its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks – the only team to outscore the Nets in the regular season with a 120.1 scoring average.

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