Last season, the Brooklyn Nets fell from No. 1 to No. 10 during Kevin Durant’s six-week absence due to an MCL injury in his left knee.
The Nets lost 16 of 21 games, including 11 straight, fielding teams that resembled more like a G League squad than an NBA team. Kyrie Irving was unavailable due to his unvaccinated status, leading to James Harden quitting the team and forcing his way to Philadelphia.
Durant is out again with an MCL injury on the opposite knee. He will be re-evaluated in two weeks, which does not necessarily mean he will be ready to return to action by then.
For the next seven games that could stretch to 17, the Nets will be without their leading scorer — an all-time great and this season’s most efficient 30-point scorer.
But there is optimism that this time, the Nets will fare better than last season.
And it starts with Irving, who is averaging 25.7 points on 50/40/90 shooting split with 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists since his return from an eight-game team-imposed suspension.
“[Durant] is in good spirits as we all are. The strength of our team is us picking each other up and just being ready for whatever’s thrown at us.”Kyrie Irving postgame via Yes Network
It has been the theme of the Nets’ season after a rocky start.
They had their best 20-game stretch in franchise history, not only because of Durant and Irving. But also because of the team’s depth.
Nets GM Sean Marks surrounded Durant and Irving with a bevy of versatile shooters, from the traditional marksmen Seth Curry and Joe Harris to midrange gunner T.J. Warren and 3-and-D wings Royce O’Neale and Yuta Watanabe.
While Ben Simmons’ offense still leaves much to be desired, he’s been spreading out the Nets’ offense with six assists per game, half leading to three-pointers.
Their starting center Nic Claxton has capitalized on the attention his teammates have attracted and parlayed that into a career-high 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game with 11 double-doubles this season. He’s also been ferocious on defense, swatting away a league-best 2.6 shots.
Sunday’s nine-point comeback win in Miami without Durant in the final 13 minutes was the latest proof of the Nets’ superior depth compared to last season.
“We kind of talked about that before the game. A lot of guys have been put in different positions to help the team and another opportunity [presented itself]. Job well done to all those guys really who finished and sustain that stretch. [They] showed a lot of resilience, a lot of resolve to stay together.”Jacque Vaughn postgame via NBA.com
The Nets will begin life without Durant with two home games against their rivals and Eastern Conference leader Boston Celtics on Thursday and Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
A five-game road trip at San Antonio (Jan. 17), Phoenix (Jan. 19), Utah (Jan. 20), Golden State (Jan. 22) and Philadelphia (Jan. 25) follows next before Durant gets re-evaluated.
Irving will now become the focal point of the offense, but he believes collectively, as a group, they will step up to fill the void left by Durant.
“I just think obviously our strategy [will change]. It’s pretty clear that me and [Durant] are leading most of the offense predominantly, and we have incredible shooters, incredible talented basketball players around us. Now I think it shapes into an all-around offense and guys being ready to play and make an impact out there.
So, I think one of the greatest qualities of our team is our bench and the way we support each other despite who’s in the lineup, and now it’s just time to go out and exemplify that. …So, [we] just got to be mature about it.”Kyrie Irving postgame via Yes Network
While it has been a scary moment for Irving to see Durant, his closest friend in the team, go down with another injury, he is confident Durant will be able to return sooner this time compared to last season’s six-week absence that took a heavy toll on the Nets’ title bid.
“I’m grateful that all that time that [Durant] has put in the weight room, putting his body in a great position, was able to save him from something worse.”Kyrie Irving postgame via Yes Network
The 27-13 Nets are just one game behind the Celtics and 1.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
It will be fascinating to see how Vaughn will navigate this stretch without Durant. But he’s more equipped than Steve Nash last season when the Nets folded without their superstar.
It will be a test for the Nets, not only as a team but as an organization, as Durant will keenly watch how they will fight with him on the sideline.
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