SAN DIEGO — Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Joe Harris were all trying their best, but this was not their night.
On the plush, manicured lawn of Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai’s picturesque La Jolla, California, home, the Nets’ four veterans were no match for Tsai’s two sons at bocce ball.
“Didn’t go great for us,” Griffin said. “But they were pretty good.”
A little over a week ago, the Nets were Tsai’s guests at his home while they were holding training camp at the University of San Diego. The Nets’ owner had never hosted this many people at his Southern California home, so he wanted to make sure the 60-plus members of the Nets’ traveling party would be entertained and well fed.
There was a golf simulator for those who didn’t get to nearby Torrey Pines to hit some golf balls, not to mention cornhole and Jenga.
And in case the Nets wanted more court time, there was a light blue basketball half court perched not far from an oceanside cliff where Griffin and a few players did get some shots up.
“Beautiful house,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “… And the view.”
Perhaps the only thing more spectacular than the sight of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from Tsai’s house was that of Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the Nets’ collection of title-contending players spending time together, eating, laughing and playing games.
With Irving’s vaccination status and inability to play games in Brooklyn hanging over the Nets’ championship aspirations (Caesars Sportsbook has the Nets favored at +225 to win the 2022 NBA championship), this night of bonding at Tsai’s home and week of training camp in San Diego could end up being more vital than the Nets ever anticipated.
In their lone season together so far, the Nets’ Big Three of Durant, Harden and Irving played a grand total of 14 games together in the regular season and playoffs combined. After logging a shade over two hours of court time together in the postseason because of injuries, the star trio needs more time and more reps. And the more games in Brooklyn that Irving spends away from his teammates, the more valuable the time spent in San Diego becomes.
Irving practiced the entire week with his teammates at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. When the team returned to practice in Brooklyn last week, it did so without its starting point guard for four practices and a preseason home game due to New York’s COVID-19 protocols that require local players to get at least one vaccination shot to enter an indoor gym, including Barclays Center. But on Friday, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported Irving will be allowed to practice at the team’s HSS Training Center after the city determined it is a “private office building” as opposed to an indoor gym.
Irving rejoined his teammates at an outdoor event at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Saturday before practicing with his team again on Sunday at HSS. But the Nets’ star point guard will not play in Monday’s preseason game in Philadelphia.
“We recognize he’s not playing in home games,” Nash told reporters after Irving practiced Sunday with the team in Brooklyn for the first time this preseason. “We are going to have to for sure play without him this year. So it just depends on when, where and how much.”
In San Diego, the Nets didn’t have to worry about any city ordinances disrupting their cohesiveness. The time spent together on the bus to and from practices, the cross-country flights, the golf outings at Torrey Pines and the dinner with the Tsais were all opportunities for the Nets to enhance their chemistry.
“It was great,” Harden said of dinner at the Tsais’ house, which included steak and fish on the menu. “Kind of team bonding, organization bonding, getting to know each other. It was just beautiful, man. I think the more we can be around each other, the more we get to learn each other off the court, that makes it easier on the court.”
“[The dinner] was our first kind of bonding experience,” Harden said the day after. “… So best believe that I’ll try to get guys together for dinners, hangouts and things like that more often. We’ve got a fairly quiet group. Most of the guys are to themselves, they stay in their own little shells. It’ll be nice to get them out, open up a little bit, even myself.”
THE DOORS TO the court at the Jenny Craig Pavilion were closed, and the windows on the doors were covered by paper. But the energy of the Nets’ practices could be heard and felt through the doors as players shouted, communicating and encouraging one another during practices.
With a star-studded collection of talent that includes 44 combined All-Star appearances among Durant, Irving, Harden, Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Millsap, the Nets spent their first week together getting in shape, getting accustomed to Nash’s concepts and getting used to one another.
“Intense,” Millsap, the 36-year-old veteran who joins Brooklyn after spending the past four seasons in Denver, described the team’s practices. “Intense.
“[But with] all the accolades in the locker room, nobody has an ego. Everybody is in there to win.”
Back in Brooklyn before the Nets left for San Diego for camp, Irving couldn’t participate in the team’s media day because of New York’s COVID-19 protocols.
Irving had to do his media session remotely via videoconference and asked for respect for his privacy while also saying he did not want to be a distraction to the team.
That, though, did nothing to quell the attention surrounding Irving. The Nets’ point guard became a hot topic not just nationally but around the globe. While Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal were critical of players not getting vaccinated, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, discussed how some NBA players won’t get vaccinated during a recent parliament session.
In San Diego, however, Irving wasn’t a distraction to his team.
There were only a handful of reporters at practice daily at USD. Had the Nets held camp in Brooklyn, there would have been double the number of reporters and cameras on some days.
“I didn’t even know CNN [was] talking about us,” Harden said in San Diego. “I didn’t know Kareem and Shaq talked about us. I don’t even pay attention to stuff like that.
“Obviously, I know [the vaccination attention surrounding] Kyrie, but I don’t know who’s talking about him. … Kyrie gonna handle that stuff, and I just focus on training camp and preparing for a great season that we are about to have.”
Irving did not talk to reporters in California after practices or the Nets’ preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Irving and several other key players sat out. Irving was allowed to keep his focus squarely on basketball.
“He had a great camp in San Diego,” Nash told reporters on Sunday. “He looked great.”
The Nets’ social media team posted practice videos that showed Irving converting a nifty reverse layup and the point guard and Durant doing their elaborate handshake. One of the videos also showed Harden setting up his teammates several times with his playmaking, which is perhaps a foretelling of the Nets’ future during home games in the absence of Irving in New York.
Durant liked the competitiveness, experience and veteran basketball brains he saw all around him in the camp practices. The Olympic gold medalist and two-time NBA champion has experience playing with a collection of All-Stars and understands he won’t truly know what this Nets squad can do until the regular season.
“We’re still building,” Durant said. “Obviously, practices, shootarounds and all that stuff are great. Until you get real game action, then we start to gauge to see where we are as a group. But we got high-IQ guys and we are looking forward to building — that’s something special as we step out on the floor.
“But we need them game reps under our belt in order for us to really, really feel comfortable with each other.”
ON THE LAST day of camp, Irving darted to and from five different spots behind the arc on a court at the far end of the Jenny Craig Pavilion. Building a good sweat well after practice ended, Irving focused on catching and shooting 3-pointers while working on his conditioning.
Until he was allowed to practice with the Nets again this past weekend in Brooklyn, the sight of Irving catching and shooting 3s was the last time the media got to watch the point guard work on the court. He and several veterans didn’t play against the Lakers in the preseason opener.
That did not dampen Tsai’s excitement. The Nets’ owner sat next to his wife, Clara — who was wearing a T-shirt with “Spread Love the Brooklyn Way” on it — and his family across from the Nets bench at Staples Center and enjoyed seeing some of the team’s younger players get playing time.
The Nets then got on their flight home to New York, where Irving could not practice for four straight days. Barring an unexpected change, it also appears the Nets will not have Irving on the floor for a single preseason minute.
But some 2,764 miles away from the Barclays Center, the Nets had one mostly sunny week together when they all practiced, bonded and even got in some bocce ball by the Pacific Ocean.
“I mean, it definitely helps,” Durant said when asked how the time spent together in San Diego helped the team’s chemistry. “When we all at home, we all have our own lives and families and we’re kind of separated when we’re not at the gym. But here, we’re all in the same bus, going back to the same hotel and we have conversations.
“Guys are starting to understand each other’s lives and what they’ve been through,” Durant continued. “We’re asking questions about where guys come from, so that stuff helps a lot. It’s good to be on the road with a new team, with new teammates. Hopefully that [leads to] a good start to the season.”