The early playoff exit did nothing to diminish the Nets’ confidence. They still believe they’re the best team in the NBA, even if they fell well short of expectations.
“At full strength, nobody can beat us,” star guard James Harden told Sports Illustrated. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”
The Nets, of course, were not at full strength when they lost in seven games to the eventual NBA champion Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Kyrie Irving suffered a severe right ankle injury in Game 4 of the series and didn’t return. Harden aggravated a hamstring injury in the opener, an injury that still hasn’t completely healed, and though he returned in Game 5, he clearly wasn’t himself.
The Nets still nearly won the series behind Kevin Durant’s brilliance. After his 49-point, 17-rebound explosion in a Game 5 victory, Durant erupted for 48 points in Game 7. He nearly won it in regulation, but his toe was on the 3-point line, tying the game instead of giving the Nets the lead with one second left. They would lose in overtime.
“We’re just excited. We’re focused. We know what we have to do,” Harden said. “The biggest thing is us being healthy, which we will be. Honestly, we’re just excited to play a whole season together. That’s the exciting part.”
The trio played just eight regular-season games together last season. All three stars missed significant time for a variety of ailments. In fact, Harden is still trying to get his hamstring right, he said.
“So I want to make sure I’m completely healed and strong enough so I can go out there and completely be myself,” the nine-time All-Star said. “My rehab is going very, very well, and my getting my conditioning right is a big part of that.”
It’s been a strong offseason for the Nets. Durant led Team USA to a gold medal at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The team brought back Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown, and added Patty Mills, a valuable two-way guard. Its first-round pick, shooting guard Cam Thomas of LSU, was named the co-MVP of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
All the pieces are in place for the Nets to win a title — they are considered the favorite — provided their big stars are healthy.
“Now we’ll get a full year to regroup,” Harden said, “and get this thing going where we want it to.”