Brad Stevens understands the approach of the underdog coach. Once upon a time, he convinced the Butler Bulldogs they could win a national title in their hometown, Indianapolis, six miles from the Butler fieldhouse that hosted the 1954 state final that inspired the film “Hoosiers.”
Stevens came within an inch or two — on Gordon Hayward’s Hail Mary shot against Duke in 2010 — of authoring the most improbable story in college basketball history. When he took the Celtics head coaching job in 2013, nobody thought eight years later he would be coaching the fabled franchise as the NBA equivalent of a mid-major. Yet that’s exactly the stance he took when he called his first-round opponent, the Nets, “probably the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA,” and when he said that if he were an NBA fan, “I’d have hard time seeing them lose.”
Stevens knows what everyone in the league knows: The Nets are confronting more pressure than the other 15 teams in the playoffs, including the defending champion Lakers. LeBron James has won four rings with three franchises. He has already proven he can win with different supporting cast members, from Dwyane Wade to Kyrie Irving to Anthony Davis. James would surely love to two-peat and tie Lakers legends Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson with five overall rings, one shy of the man LeBron is chasing on the GOAT scoreboard, Michael Jordan. But he doesn’t really need to do it.
The Nets need to do it. The Nets are built to win now, as in right now, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Irving. Though they played a mere eight games together during the regular season, the three stars are relatively healthy entering the playoffs. Is anyone confident that will be the case this time next year, or the year after that? Anyone?
So if you are Stevens, why not add a few extra pounds to the burden the Nets are carrying into this tournament? Why not label them unbeatable, and God’s latest gift to mankind, while the betting favorites are still trying to figure out exactly how to play with one another?
Of course, the smart way for the Nets to look at this is simple: Extreme pressure is often tethered to unprecedented opportunity. Even when Jason Kidd was leading the New Jersey arm of the franchise to back-to-back Finals, the Nets were never The Team in this market. They were in the league’s bottom third in attendance in both of their Finals seasons.
This time around, in the middle of a Knicks revival, in the middle of a baseball summer, the Nets’ staggering star power gives them a chance to take over the city. It will be temporary, but that elusive status is finally there to be had. As long as the Nets win the whole thing.
Make no mistake: The Nets are trying to do something here that’s awfully difficult to do. They beat the Knicks to two franchise-altering stars, Durant and Irving, in the summer of 2019, before watching as the two played in 20 of 82 games (Irving’s 20) while getting a coach fired. And then with Durant and Irving in the early stages of a new on-court era in 2020-21, paired with a novice coach (Steve Nash), the Nets traded a ton of assets for a third franchise-altering star, Harden, and charged the players and Nash to figure it all out.
Over the course of the season, Durant played in fewer than half of the Nets’ games, Irving took multiple sabbaticals and Harden was effectively out for the final six weeks. On a certain level, with all that going on, it’s remarkable the Nets still landed the No. 2 seed in the East.
But nobody wants to hear any more about the journey. Starting with Saturday night’s Game 1 at Barclays Center, it’s all about the destination. Nets-Celtics was given the prime-time slot for a reason, and it has little to do with the visiting franchise with 17 NBA championships to its name.
New York cares more about the Knicks than the Nets, but America cares more about the Nets than the Knicks. The Big 3, facing playoff consequences, are as close to must-see TV as the first round is going to get.
Stevens is smart enough to try to use that to his advantage. It makes sense to talk up the Nets as an indomitable force, especially when you’re trying to beat them without Jaylen Brown. Might as well try to raise expectations and kill them with kindness.
In the end, the Nets are under more pressure than they’ve ever been under before. The good news?
The gain of conquering that pressure will be very much worth the pain.