Nets keep winning but struggles against ‘long’ teams are alarming

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Dec 18, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) shoots on Detroit Pistons center Jalen Duren (0) in the first half at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets barely extended their season-high winning streak to six Sunday night, riding on the back of Kevin Durant’s epic 43-point performance to outlast the lowly Detroit Pistons, 124-121, on the road.

Durant scored a career-high 26 points in the third quarter to overhaul a 19-point deficit. Kyrie Irving added 38 as they became the first teammates to have topped 35 points since Durant and Russell Westbrook in the 2011-12 season with Oklahoma City Thunder.

It was also their second straight game that their stars have bailed them out of large deficits after Irving’s first game-winning buzzer-beater of his NBA career capped a 17-point comeback against the Toronto Raptors.

“That level offensively when we’re just clicking on all cylinders and the guys aren’t making shots but doing all the little things, it feels good. The team morale is good and there’s a level of poise where we’re learning about one another when were down 17, down 19. We don’t want to be in these holes, but it’s a challenge for us to beat this team.”

Kyrie Irving via NY Post

Durant has been better than ever, finding a higher gear with his surgically repaired Achilles. He’s having an MVP-level season carrying the Nets to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 19-12 record after a 2-7 start.

“Mentally, I understand the game more. I’m not too surprised by anything that’s thrown at me.”

Kevin Durant postgame via NBA.com

Durant is obliterating the Nets’ opponents every night this season, averaging 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting an efficient 56.5 percent.

“When he’s doing performances like this on a consistent basis, you can’t take it for granted. You just continue to feed him good energy and just want him to be consistent. He puts a lot of hard work and pressure on himself at times, he wants to be the best, and when I’m alongside him, I want to be the best, too. So we continue to push each other.”

Kyrie Irving postgame via NBA.com

Irving added that the guys around them are making them better. But the big-picture question is can the rest of the team level up to their stars’ play?

The Nets’ winning streak came at the soft part of the schedule, and their early struggles against long, athletic teams continued to haunt them like Sunday night. It took Durant’s heroic performance to beat a Pistons team missing their best player Cade Cunningham.

“They are a long, athletic team that plays us hard, so we’re always in tight games with them.”

Kevin Durant postgame via NBA.com

They haven’t beaten the long, athletic teams — Grizzlies, Bucks, Sixers and Celtics — far superior to the lottery-bound Pistons and fringe playoff contender Raptors.

And then there’s the skepticism about Durant, Irving, or Ben Simmons’ longevity.

Durant missed 21 games last season due to a knee injury. In that span, the Nets spiraled from the top of the East to the play-in tournament, losing 16 of 21 games. Durant (36.7) and Irving (36.6) are playing the fifth and sixth-most minutes in the league. The Nets have taken a cautious approach to Simmons since coming back from another injury.

While it’s true that they have taken a significant leap on both ends of the floor under Jacque Vaughn, they are also one injury or drama away from taking a nose dive.

Irving said these regular season games are mere tuneup games and the best team will be judged in April and May next year.

He is absolutely right.

But how long can he and Durant carry this Nets team on their backs before the other shoe drops?

Somebody from the rest of the Nets — or via trade — must rise to be the consistent third guy to ease their superstars’ burden.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo