CHICAGO — The Nets haven’t beaten a single elite team all season, and if they have any hope of hoisting the first NBA championship trophy in franchise history, they’re going to have to break that skid to do it.
Wednesday is another chance for the Nets (25-14) to get that breakthrough victory, playing the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls. And they could have to do it shorthanded, with two-thirds of the Big 3 in doubt.
The Nets trails the Bulls by two games pending the result of Chicago’s game Tuesday versus Detroit, and both James Harden and Kyrie Irving are listed as questionable. Harden has a left knee hyperextension, while Irving has a left ankle sprain. And with center LaMarcus Aldridge out, now Nic Claxton is questionable.
The Nets are 0-8 against the top-4 seeds in the East and West, with the biggest problems on the defensive end.
Brooklyn has surrendered 116.4 points in those losses to elite clubs. Their two worst performances predictably came against the Bucks, surrendering 127 and 121 points.
But the next-worst was a 118-95 defeat in their last trip to Chicago.
The Nets took a lead into the fourth quarter on Nov. 8, but collapsed, outscored 42-17 in the final period.
The Nets are also coming into this game having not only dropped five of their past seven games, but seemingly worn down under the weight of a tough schedule and heavy minutes load. Wednesday marks the second leg of four games in five days, spanning almost 4,900 miles covered.
“Who cares? It’s a part of the game. It’s a part of who we are. We’ve been in the league. We’ve got young dudes: They’re supposed to get up to play. They throw s–t at you, you’ve got to figure out how to work around it,” Kevin Durant said. “So who cares? That’s what championship teams go through: a little adversity.
“They play little games within the season to help you get better. It’s an opportunity for us to do the same thing. I’m not making no excuses about no flights, our schedule. Everybody’s schedule is f—-d up, you know?”
Durant comes into United Center not only leading the league in scoring but second in minutes at 37.4 minutes — his most since 2013-14. And after logging 43:12 and 41:34 in a cross-country back-to-back against the Spurs and at Portland, both he and Steve Nash said he’s not sitting out Wednesday.
“No. Let me die out there,” Durant said. “Nah, I’m just playing. [But] I’m not concerned. Whenever coach wants to give me a day, then I’ll support it. But I’m not looking for one, so I’m just going to play until they tell me I’m sitting out.”
It’s unclear whether the diminishing returns on defense are from fatigue or the players simply not embracing that identity and losing their focus on that end. But whatever the case, after being a top-5 defense that had them atop the East, they’ve been just 26th in Defensive Rating (116.1) since Dec. 29 while going 2-5.
The Nets’ pick-and-roll defense got burned in Portland — getting Claxton in early foul trouble and letting the Trail Blazers go 12 of 15 from the line in the first quarter. They have to shore that up before Chicago does the same.
“We’ve got to lock in, just be better,” Durant said. “That’s never what you want as a team. So you know they’re going to put the same pressure on us in Chicago, so we’ve got to play disciplined basketball without fouling, helping each other out, rebounding, getting out and running.
“So we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with stuff like that: reaching down, fouling guys on jump shots, so we’ve gotta be more disciplined in that area and we’ll be all right.”
Source: New York Post