The loss of Kyrie Irving and James Harden might be too impossible to overcome for Kevin Durant and Brooklyn.
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In the end—and with potentially series ending injuries to two key players this does feel like the end for Brooklyn—it wasn’t defense or a lack of chemistry that did in the Nets, but a cruel twist of fate. Two, actually. A pulled hamstring for James Harden a minute into the opener of the Nets second round series against Milwaukee. A nasty ankle sprain during Game 4 for Kyrie Irving, a twist so bad it forced Irving into a walking boot as he left the arena.
The NBA’s 23rd ranked defense? Didn’t matter.
A starting five that didn’t play a minute together until its first round opener? Not an issue.
Steve Nash didn’t offer much optimism when it came to the short term health of his stars on Monday. “It’s tough to lose great players,” Nash said. Irving, Nash said, had an MRI that confirmed the diagnosis of a sprained ankle. He was immediately ruled out for Game 5. Nash offered no update on Harden, but he was officially ruled out by the team an hour later. That’s 50-plus points per game, gone. “This is what it’s all about in the playoffs,” said Nash. “Ups and downs, momentum shifts, how you respond. Tomorrow is a great opportunity to show what we are made of and respond in a positive way.”
The Nets are in trouble, words that seemed unlikely to be written as recently as last week, when Brooklyn, fresh off a five-game stomping of Boston, raced out to a 2-0 series lead over the Bucks. The Nets overcame the loss of Harden with superlative games from Irving and Durant, backed by strong efforts from Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and Mike James. The loss of Irving—coupled with improved defense and shooting by Milwaukee in Game 4—proved impossible to overcome.
For weeks, Nash has wondered how the Nets would respond after being punched in the mouth. Sunday afternoon’s 11-point loss qualifies as a haymaker.
“We will see,” Nash said on Monday, “tomorrow night.”
Brooklyn, unsurprisingly, quickly adopted the next-man-up philosophy. “It’s just basketball,” Durant said. “Guys have to go out there and play like they know how to play … just hoop.” Nash reminded reporters that Brooklyn was used to dealing with injuries, having spent most of the regular season mixing and matching lineups.
“If there is any silver lining, we have continued to win games regardless of who is available,” said Nash. “We have been able to adapt on the fly, which is difficult to do sometimes. But for us that is something we have some experience with. We should have some comfort and belief that no matter who plays we can still perform and play well and be very difficult to beat.”
It’s true, the Nets struggled to keep its Big Three healthy this season. A significant Durant injury gave way to a Harden injury with Irving dipping in and out of the lineup with issues of his own. But most nights Brooklyn had at least two of its three stars on the floor. And that usually represents more firepower than most teams can match.
Nash insisted on Monday that the Nets offense would not become the Durant show. “This does not fall on Kevin,” Nash said. “This falls on the Nets. We have to find a way together to play great basketball.” And Durant—nose-to-nose with P.J. Tucker for most of the last two games and seeing a wall of long armed Bucks defenders behind him—shot just 36% in Game 4, including an ugly 1-8 from three-point range.
“Their whole team plays good defense,” said Durant. “They have long athletic guys that help, close the paint up. It’s not just one guy.”
Still—what choice does Brooklyn have but to force feed Durant? Griffin, Harris, Brown—these are good players. But they are players whose success is directly connected to the defensive attention paid to Durant, Irving and Harden. And for whatever it’s worth, Durant has thrived in the handful of games he has played without his All-Star sidekicks. In five games without Harden and Irving, Durant averaged 34 points per game, shooting 63% from the floor. More importantly: Brooklyn won four out of five of them.
Is Durant expecting to take on a broader role?
“I picture me doing everything out there,” Durant said. “Just like I do every night … I have to be prepared to do everything … I always expect me to go out there and have good intentions every possession and play as hard as I can. I’ve always approached the game that way. I’ll stick to what I know, stick to what I do and go out there and play.”
Is it frustrating, Durant was asked, to get this far only to have the season derailed by injuries?
“I’m not the one that’s injured,” Durant said. “Kyrie and James, this is their opportunity to play at the highest level. I feel more for them than for me. It’s got nothing to do with me. I wish my brothers were out there playing. I wish they were healthy. But that’s a part of the game. We all understand that. We wish they were out there playing. I know they are going to be doing their best to get back on the floor and get back there fast as possible. That’s all we can hope for.”
Indeed. But for Durant … this has to be a little maddening. He tore his Achilles in the NBA Finals, depriving him of a third straight championship and costing him all of the 2019-20 season. He surged early this season, quickly erasing questions about his ability to be Kevin Durant again after the injury. And after a rocky regular season—which included the abrupt retirement of midseason pickup and Durant’s close friend, LaMarcus Aldridge—the Nets entered the playoffs near full strength.
Today, they are nowhere near it. And while Durant has done some remarkable things in his playoff career—don’t let anyone tell you Golden State would have won either championship without him—this may be a challenge too great to overcome. Milwaukee is surging right now, its defense is clicking and the Nets best weapons to beat them back will be watching in street clothes.
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