Basketball is not a formula waiting to be solved. Built into the sport is something ineffable, artful, and unpredictable that will always keep there from being a final strategy ensuring success. Teams will continually find new ways to win, but it’s all provisional. Despite this, there have been teams that have looked like they figured out basketball once and for all, blending effectiveness with beauty in unexpected ways. There were the 2014 Spurs whose clinical ball movement opened up vistas of possibility for everyone on the team and the Warriors teams of the next few years who took the same formula and added a few historically great shooters for good measure. The Brooklyn Nets are now taking a simpler approach.
The second round match-up between the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks seemed likely to be the best of the postseason thus far. But even without James Harden, who played less than a minute of the first game before leaving after reaggravating his hamstring, the Nets have laid waste to a Milwaukee team that seemed like a legitimate contender just a week ago. On Monday night, Brooklyn put together the most dominant performance of the playoffs, defeating Milwaukee 125-86, and that score somehow makes it seem closer than it actually was. By the end of the first quarter, Irving and Durant had more points than the Bucks as a whole and things never improved for Milwaukee from there.
In these first two games against the Bucks, it seems like Brooklyn has found a new way to solve basketball’s fundamental problem -- not by coming up with an inventive new strategy, but by reducing the game to its bare essentials. If there is any trace of a coherent or consistent system that the Nets are using to outwit their opponents, it is too subtle for me to notice. Instead, they bring the ball up and attack while running an offense that appears no more complex than one my friends and I might employ at the local park. In theory, this should be simple to stop, but thus far, they have rendered tactics irrelevant.
The Nets feature what may be the best trio in NBA history. James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving are three of the best scorers ever, and while coaches may come up with easier ways for them to get open or to their favorite spots on the floor, when all else fails, they can do just fine on their own. Think of James Harden isolating on the perimeter before stepping back and creating space for an open three or Kevin Durant pulling up in the mid-range -- his height and length offering all the separation he needs -- or Irving using a melange of feints and hesitations before bursting by his man on his way to an open lay-up.
The Nets’ two healthy stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are both outlandishly talented, able to do almost everything on a basketball court, but for all their other talents both are at their best as scorers. While Harden may be the better scorer in terms of brute and occasionally artless efficiency, Durant is perhaps the most complete offensive weapon in NBA history. There is no spot on the floor where he is anything other than lethal. Then there’s Kyrie whose dextrous handles leave the most capable defenders looking confused as no amount of training or tape could prepare them for the improvisational brilliance he showcases. What defense can be implemented to stop Kyrie Irving from getting to the basket? How could they know what he’s going to do when he so rarely seems to have planned it out himself? What can be done when Kevin Durant pulls up and lets an economical and smooth jumper fly?
The Nets as a franchise may feel sterile -- often seeming more like a market-tested start-up than a basketball team -- but the team itself is a delight. There’s no reason that their stars should blend well together. All three of them have styles that are theoretically antithetical and demand they have the ball in their hands for extended periods of time, yet this lack of overt chemistry is swallowed whole by their talent and how much they enjoy playing together. On Monday night, one could see the delight in the faces of Durant and Irving, almost as if they were unable to believe how easy it was. And it’s not that they haven’t played on great teams before, but neither has ever found themselves in a situation where they can play so freely. When watching the Nets at their best, it feels like a rare chance to glimpse watching them play basketball as they must have when the game was still new to them, when they were just finding out how good they could be. Instead of having to fit into a coach’s system -- being asked to sand down their rough edges like each had to in Golden State and Boston to varying degrees -- they appear to have been granted a near-absolute license to trust their instincts and go from there. The joy is palpable.
The Bucks, and any other team that may face the Nets this postseason, will be outmatched regardless of Harden’s availability. It’s one thing to have less starpower and to fight valiantly against an opponent in spite of the disparity in talent; it’s something different to be confronted by a team that currently looks like the personification of inevitability. Opposing coaches may develop defensive schemes to slow Brooklyn, but it seems unlikely that any strategy can counteract something this overwhelming, this elemental. It is possible that there will come a string of games when the Nets’ shots stop falling or a moment when the absence of James Harden, if he is unable to return from injury, becomes too much to overcome. Right now though, Brooklyn appears to be reaching their ceiling at the right moment -- not by doing anything new or noteworthy, but just by having two of the best shot creators and makers in the history of the sport. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.