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The big day for the Nets’ Big 3 finally has arrived — and not a moment too soon with the NBA playoffs on the horizon.
For the time since the eve of Valentines Day’s — a stretch of 91 days that included 42 games — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden are expected to share the floor for the Nets on Saturday against the Bulls in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Getting those three together had proven as difficult as spotting Bigfoot or wiggling your own ears, but now?
“Yes, I think [Saturday] will be the day,” coach Steve Nash said after Friday’s practice. “If everything stays the same, those three will play.”
The last piece is Irving returning after he missed Wednesday’s game with a facial contusion. The longest obstacle was Durant coming back from a 23-game absence after he strained his left hamstring on Feb. 13. Just as Durant returned, Harden went out for 18 straight with a right hamstring strain. Harden returned only to find Irving was being held out as a precaution despite a negative scan and no concussion symptoms.
“Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent from a performance standpoint,” Nash said, “it is an experience, and it is something we can put in the bank. The reality for our team is that everything is so new. We’ve had so little time together.”
It will be just the eighth time this season the Big 3 has been whole. But this also is about uniting a starting five.
The last time Irving, Harden and Durant played together was the night after Blake Griffin played his final game for the Pistons. Griffin made his Nets’ debut on March 21 and must find his place in the short time before the playoffs.
“He’s a phenomenal player … with a high IQ,” forward Jeff Green said of Griffin. “So I’m sure it’s not going to be a problem with him trying to find his way in how to play with those three guys on the floor. He’s going to figure it out, and he’s going to have success doing that.”
Nic Claxton is in the same boat. He made his season debut Feb. 23.
“Probably two of our better lineups have never played together,” Nash said. “We’re not a team that’s running it back for Year 3, 4, 5, that’s going to rely on our past experiences. We’re a team that has to build while we’re trying to win. That is our gap and our challenge, so [Saturday] will just be a nice step in the direction.”
Griffin has been a pleasant surprise for the Nets, shooting significantly better from the floor (50.9 percent), behind the 3-point arc (40.3) and the free-throw line (78.4) than he was with the Pistons, while averaging 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Has the 32-year-old, six-time All-Star turned back the clock?
“Turned back the clock?” Green asked rhetorically. “You make him seem old. He’s not old at all. I think everybody just threw dirt on his name because of the last year he had in Detroit. But playing through the injuries he had, it’s tough.”
Nash won’t let chemistry stop him from building playoff rotations. The Big 3, Joe Harris and Griffin or Claxon could be the crunch-time look.
“Those are lineups you’re guaranteed to see in the playoffs,” Nash said. “We don’t really have a choice. We don’t have the luxury of big sample size or much debate about it. We’re going to have to figure it out and continue to improve and put the pieces together on the fly.”
The rest of the Eastern Conference surely noticed Wednesday that Harden looked as if he hadn’t missed a beat in his absence. Whether he — or any of the stars — play in both of the back-to-back games this weekend could depend on whether or not playoff seeding still is undecided Sunday against the Cavaliers.
“I think we’ll monitor it and protect him,” Nash said. “But he should be able to play more than he played last game. It’s not like we want him to go out there and play 40 minutes. I think we have to find our sweet spot as to how much is needed and how much we can protect him.”
All restrictions will be off soon enough.
“We’re getting to finally try to create a rhythm with all guys healthy. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most,” Green said. “That was my biggest concern, so I’m just glad we are at that point where we can say we are healthy and we are ready.”
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