The two sides of Nets’ Steve Nash as playoffs loom

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Steve Nash has done a splendid job in his first year as a head basketball coach.

Steve Nash is probably the No. 1 concern the Nets will have when the NBA’s playoff tournament kicks off in a couple of weeks.

It’s not simply that both of those sentences can be true. They are absolutely true. They are certainly true. It does not minimize the job Nash has done in this, his maiden voyage, keeping the Nets at or near the top of the Eastern Conference all year. You are allowed to also mention that he has never coached a playoff game in his life.

Both can be true.

Both are true.

“We have to give ourselves some kind of a buffer while we get more familiar with our schemes and sets,” Nash said after the Bucks beat the Nets 124-118 at Fiserv Forum on Tuesday night, pulling Milwaukee to within a game of the Nets in the loss column and the No. 2 seed while simultaneously clinching the season tie-breaker with Brooklyn.

“Those guys have been together for years and we haven’t,” Nash said. “We have to make up that gap. That’s our life in a nutshell.”

Well, that’s one of the nutshells that will define the Nets’ lives once the playoffs begin and the spotlight becomes permanently affixed to this great Brooklyn basketball experiment. It is important to remember at all times that the Nets are still in play for the No. 1 seed despite playing all of seven games at what amounts to full strength this year, games when James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were all available.

But it is also important to remember games like this, when Nash all but had his lunch money stolen by Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. Most glaring was the way he meekly allowed the Bucks to steamroll his team with an 18-1 run that turned a 103-97 Nets lead with 10 minutes to play into a 115-104 Bucks advantage in just over four minutes of tortured, torturous, one-sided basketball.

Nash, to his credit, admitted as much.

“I could’ve called timeout there for sure,” he said. “But that’s also a part of our team: We want to problem-solve. We want to keep attacking. Maybe I could’ve called another timeout but you also want to make sure you save a few for the end of the game.”

Handily, the game ended with two unused timeouts for the Nets, and with a genuine lack of urgency as they tried to come back at the Bucks, passing up 3s for 2s, not shortening the game or the court with timeouts.

It isn’t just the players who need to become more adept at problem-solving.

Now, yes, it’s possible that a lot of Nash’s inexperience will be camouflaged when Harden returns and the Big 3 is intact, ready to mow down the rest of the East. But it is also important to remember that the upside-down nature of the East means that while the Nets might own every other matchup, up and down the lineup, the first-round pairing that matters most could look like this:

Nash versus Erik Spoelstra.

Or Nash versus Brad Stevens.

Or Nash versus Tom Thibodeau.

And that doesn’t include the fun that’ll be in store for Nash, assuming he survives that chess match, when he will almost certainly have to outwit both Budenholzer and Doc Rivers in some order just to make it out of the East.

Again, maybe talent can overcome and overwhelm that. Maybe Nash will lean on Mike D’Antoni, a veteran of 10 playoff springs and summers as a head coach, the way Joe Torre used to rely on Don Zimmer once the calendar flipped to October. And maybe the Nets’ biggest worry will be what Nash is insisting it will be.

“We don’t have a common history,” Nash said. “Everything is new.”

He’s got that last part right for sure, starting with the man staring back at him in the mirror every day.

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