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The Nets face a five-game, 11-day road trip, with the Greek Freak up first on the schedule.
It’s more like first and second for a Nets team set to play back-to-back games in Milwaukee against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s championship-hunting Bucks on Sunday and Tuesday.
Kyrie Irving agreed that two straight matchups against the soon-to-be conference rival will be great preparation for the playoffs.
“That is a competitor’s dream, so we look forward to it,” Irving said after the 128-109 loss to the Trail Blazers at home on Friday. “We know that they’ve been playing well. So, we’re just looking forward to going in there.”
Now time for the preemptive injury report: Nets head coach Steve Nash said Bruce Brown, who missed three straight games after getting fluid drained from his knee, is expected to return to the lineup on Sunday. Kevin Durant, who was load managed in the second game of a back-to-back after playing 36 minutes against the Pacers on Thursday, is also expected to play in the first of the two games against the Bucks.
James Harden, who is not expected to play until maybe closer to the playoffs, will also travel for the trip. Nicolas Claxton has returned after missing seven straight games in the health and safety protocol. He is working out, but will need a ramp-up period before he returns to the court. “Don’t expect to see Nic for at least a week,” Nash said. “He’s healthy. He just needs to get his fitness.” Chris Chiozza remains out with a broken hand, and Spencer Dinwiddie remains out with a partial ACL tear sustained three games into the season.
“So, even the guys that are out and rehabbing or in the stay ready group, I think they’ll all be coming and we’ll keep building,” Nash said.
The pair of games have playoff-seeding implications. The Nets are only up a half-game on the Philadelphia 76ers, which means a Brooklyn loss and a Philly win sends the Nets to the second seed and the Sixers to first place. The Bucks hold the third seed, four games behind the Nets, which means back-to-back wins over Brooklyn would move Milwaukee within two games of supplanting.
Irving suggested the No. 1 seed is not a priority given how well the Nets have performed despite being undermanned all season.
“We’re just having fun man. We’re enjoying the journey. Wherever we land, I think we’ll be proud,” he said. “We just want to stay resilient as a group and just get prepared for what’s coming in the next few weeks. That’s the exciting part. Playing in these different environments on the road, that’s exciting as well, but just getting tighter as a group throughout some of these games where we’ll learn a lot is what I’m looking forward to.”
Playoff seeding will matter. If the Nets finish first, they will play the eighth seed in the first round, the winner of the No. 4-No. 5 matchup in the second round, and — barring an upset — whichever team emerges victorious in a series between the Sixers and Bucks.
If they fall to the No. 2 seed, it likely means a second-round playoff matchup against Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, which will be a series that drains the Nets early into their championship push.
“My focus has been these games coming every other day, and I help make sure all guys are healthy and trying to prepare for these games. I haven’t really paid much attention to what standings are and what position,” veteran forward Jeff Green said. “How many games we got left? Eight games left. When these eight games are over you can ask me again.”
THE GRINCH WHO STOLE MINUTES
Here’s an update on Durant’s durability: He wanted to play in the second game of a back-to-back on Friday after logging 36 minutes and scoring 42 points on Thursday. Nash, following the performance team’s load management recommendations, shut that idea down.
”I spoke to him this morning, and he wanted to play tonight,” Nash said. “So I had to be The Grinch and tell him that’s not (happening). But he feels great and he is progressing, and I’m really pleased with that. Obviously, he was terrific last night and against Toronto.”
There isn’t much the Nets can do on the road, not in a socially-distant society, not when the team’s playoff livelihood hinges on players to stay healthy, both on the floor and off. But they can use this time to strengthen their bond, a bond Kevin Durant previously noted has helped the team with its cohesion on the floor.
“The centralized focus when you’re on the road, or you’re in the middle of the season, is staying committed to the game and staying committed to your teammates,” Irving said. “So anytime that we can get a chance to just find some downtime to hang out we do. But other than that we’re just maintaining our balance by doing things on the road that help us prepare for the games to come. They’re coming so quick, so you hang out for four hours then you gotta go to sleep and you gotta get COVID tested, then you got to wake up and do it all over again.
“So it’s been quite a journey. It hasn’t been like some of the other road trips I’ve been on throughout my NBA career.”
HOT HAND HARRIS
Nets sharpshooter Joe Harris hit his 200th three-pointer of the season in the fourth quarter against the Trail Blazers. He joined just D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe as the only players in Nets history to reach the mark.