Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2021-22 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Brooklyn's big three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant take the spotlight.
Context: The Nets are coming off of perhaps their best win of the season.
Following a rough stretch in which they lost five of eight games, the Nets blew the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls out on Wednesday by 26 points. Harden led the way with a near triple-double of 25 points, 16 assists and seven rebounds, Durant chipped in with 27 points and nine assists, and both Patty Mills (21) and Day'Ron Sharpe (20) had themselves 20-point games.
In what was only his third game of the season, Irving finished with nine points in 24 minutes of play, but there were a number of possessions in which he, Harden and Durant forced the Bulls to pick their poison.
You know what that means - to the film room!
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Breakdown: Harden brings the ball up for the Nets to open the third quarter.
The four other Nets on the court with Harden are Irving, Durant, Sharpe and Kessler Edwards. Irving, Durant and Sharpe huddle up around the free throw line to start the possession, but Sharpe quickly approaches Harden to run a pick-and-roll while Irving and Durant make their way to opposite wings.
To maximize spacing, Edwards parks himself in the corner.
Harden hasn't been a particularly efficient scorer out of the pick-and-roll this season - he currently ranks in the 39th percentile with an average of 0.79 points per possession - but he's proven himself to be an elite pick-and-roll scorer in the past. He also uses pick-and-rolls as a vehicle to force switches so that he can attack mismatches in isolation. (You probably don't need me to tell you that Harden is one of the greatest one-on-one scorers we've ever seen.)
Knowing what Harden is capable of, the Bulls don't give him much space to work with by having Lonzo Ball fight over Sharpe's screen and Nikola Vucevic meet him at the 3-point line on the other side.
Sharpe takes advantage of Ball and Vucevic focusing all of their attention on Harden by diving hard to the basket.
This is where things get interesting.
With two on Harden and Alfonzo McKinnie glued to Durant on the wing, the players to watch on the Bulls are DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. Ideally, one of them would slide over to stop Sharpe from rolling all the way to the basket, but they're both guarding 3-point shooters. (Edwards has only appeared in nine games this season but is a promising 11-for-28 from 3-point range. Irving, meanwhile, is... well, he's Kyrie Irving.)
LaVine eventually peels off Irving to provide some help, just not in time to prevent Sharpe from catching an alley-oop from Harden.
Why it matters: Want to guess what the Nets ran on the very next possession? You guessed it - a high pick-and-roll with Harden as the ball handler, Sharpe as the screener and Irving, Durant and Edwards as the shooters.
The Bulls defended Harden the same way, but this time they had McKinnie drop from the opposite corner to the paint to take away the alley-oop to Sharpe.
The problem? That left Kevin freaking Durant open for a catch-and-shoot 3.
One, that is basically a layup for one of the greatest shooters and scorers in NBA history. Two, it shows how smart of a passer Harden is. (He was probably watching McKinnie the whole way, waiting for him to make a decision before giving up the ball.) Three, it's yet another example of the difficult positions the Nets put teams in when Harden, Irving and Durant are on the court at the same time.
Irving didn't even do anything of note on either possession, but the threat of his 3-point shooting - he canned 43.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts last season - was enough to keep LaVine occupied.
Maybe the Bulls shouldn't have paid as much respect to Edwards - he is a rookie who hasn't played all that much to this point of the season, after all - but one of Joe Harris or Patty Mills will likely fill his spot when it matters most. Helping off of them is a losing game.
This all goes back to a key number we took a closer look at coming into this season: 123.1, Brooklyn's offensive rating in the 235 minutes Harden, Irving and Durant have shared the court since becoming teammates. Their defensive rating (114.2) isn't anything to write home about, but the Nets have been so dominant offensively in those minutes that they're outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions, which is equivalent to the best net rating in the league this season.
Small sample size? Sure. It's possible Brooklyn's offensive rating won't scream "you might as well not even try" the more Harden, Irving and Durant play together - they've only appeared in 10 regular-season games to date - but the eye test sure does back that number up.
Now, all of this comes with the rather large caveat that the Nets only recently welcomed Irving back and there's a chance he's with them in a part-time capacity for the rest of the season. Even if there's renewed optimism that Irving will become a full-time player at some point, there's no doubt they still have a lot to figure out, but performances like the one we saw on Wednesday serve as a reminder of just how dynamic the Nets can be when they're whole.
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