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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. They scored the final basket in their win over the Bucks on a possession that began with Durant creating a 3 for Harden and ended with Harden creating a 3 for Durant:

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)
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.

The Rockets were always significantly outgunned. Harden played with plenty of star power in Houston, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, but none are in the same galaxy as Durant in terms of talent. Harden hasn’t played with a forward who can threaten the defense as a scorer and playmaker since he left Oklahoma City. Playing with someone like that makes the game so much easier. In the first play below, Durant pushes the pace in transition and creates an open lane to the basket for Harden. In the second, Middleton stays so attached to Durant that Harden strolls into the paint unopposed:

The sheer ease with which they are scoring is what has stood out the most in their first two games together. The Nets have an offensive rating of 119.7 in 60 minutes with both Durant and Harden on the floor. It’s unclear how the defense is even supposed to try to stop them, especially when Joe Harris, one of the league’s best pure shooters, is spreading the floor. One of Brooklyn’s favorite plays uses Harris to screen for Harden. That forces the defense to either leave Harden or Harris open from 3, or switch the screen and leave a poor defender on Harden. Send a third defender to the play and Durant will be playing three-on-two on the other side of the court. The end result so far has been a lot of open 3s for Harris:

The rest of the NBA basically has to hope that Kyrie Irving will make the Nets less dangerous. The adjustment process when all three are together (which could reportedly happen later this week) will be harder than the one that Harden and Durant have handled easily. The former has been dominating the ball just like he did in Houston, averaging 107.0 touches per game (which would lead the league) with an average time of possession that trails only Luka Doncic over the last two games. Durant, meanwhile, has averaged 23.5 field goal attempts since Harden’s arrival, compared to 18 in his first eight games.

There will be diminishing returns to having three dynamic scorers on the same team. The question at the heart of the Nets’ great chemistry experiment is exactly how much. This is not like the Big Three in Miami. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were both slashers whom defenses didn’t guard at the 3-point line. It took them time to figure out how to get out of each other’s way. It will be easier for Durant, Harden, and Kyrie because all three can stand so far apart and still threaten the defense. There are no diminishing returns to more outside shooting. Harris and the new Big Three are averaging 29.8 3-point attempts per game between them this season. This is a whole new challenge for NBA defenses. They have never had to stop a team with the ability to generate 3s from so many different spots on the floor.

Maybe the closest comparison to this team is the last Big Three that Kyrie was a part of, in Cleveland. The Cavs surrounded Kyrie, LeBron, and Kevin Love with 3-point marksmen and stretched defenses past their breaking points. The most dangerous version of that team was their final season together, in 2016-17, when they steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs before losing to Durant’s Warriors in the Finals. But it’s not like Golden State did anything to slow them down in that series. It simply scored more points and beat Cleveland at its own game.

Opponents will hang their hats against the Nets on defense. For as great as Brooklyn has been on offense over the last two games, it gave up 115 points to the Magic and 123 to the Bucks. The Nets had DeAndre Jordan guarding Giannis for most of the game on Monday, which went about as well as you would expect. Brooklyn doesn’t have much athleticism up front after surrendering Jarrett Allen in the Harden trade. Nor do they have much depth. The Nets are relying heavily on 34-year-old Jeff Green, who averaged 33.4 minutes over the last two games. All three of their stars will have to play defense as well as they have in their entire careers.

But the whole “basketball is played on two ends of the floor” dynamic works both ways for Brooklyn. The team’s defense may not matter much if the offense can turn the best defenses into average ones. They will dictate the style of play against every team they face. The only way to beat them will be with even better offense. That will require many teams to get out of their comfort zone and play a space-age style of basketball to keep pace. The Nets with Harden are not unbeatable. But after two games, they look pretty unstoppable.