If Caris LeVert has proven one thing this season, it’s that he fully is capable of stepping up and taking charge in the absence of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. What has yet to be determined is how well his talents can be blended with the two biggest guns to lift the Nets to the championship status they seek.
With Durant in quarantine because of health and safety protocols and Irving sitting out for personal reasons, LeVert went off for 43 points in a 115-110 loss Friday night in Memphis. LeVert has scored at least 20 points five times in 10 games for the Nets (5-5) this season, and Durant missed four of those games while Irving missed three of them. LeVert is averaging 18.1 points overall but 29.3 without Durant and 31.0 without Irving.
Durant was listed by the Nets as probable to face his former Thunder (4-4) team Sunday night at Barclays Center, but Irving’s status remains questionable. Nets coach Steve Nash said he has talked to Irving but intends to respect his privacy on the matter.
Still, the Nets must spend much of the regular season finding how best to merge LeVert’s talents with Durant and Irving rather than submerging them. Asked what the Nets achieved over the previous three games, LeVert said, "We went 2-1. We played pretty good basketball in stretches.
"I think it will be important for all of us to keep this momentum going when those two get back because, obviously, they are a huge part of our team and we need them to play well in order to do what we want to do. So, it was good to kind of get our confidence, get our looks and things like that because we’re going to need that going forward for sure."
When Irving and Durant return, LeVert likely will shift back to his sixth man role as the backup point guard running the second unit. So, it’s a different job for much of the game, when he can have the ball in his hands, but Nash likes to mix him in with the starters to close games, which means a complementary role alongside Durant and Irving.
"Yeah, the roles are definitely different when those guys are playing, but there’s other things to take from it," LeVert said. "For us to be a great team, a team that we know we can be, everyone has to be playing at full strength, everyone has to be confident, everyone has to be ready. If anything I think these three games proved that, one through 15, we’re a strong team and we’re going to need that going forward."
Without a doubt, the Nets are one of the deepest teams in the NBA if not the deepest. Because Nash also moved sharp-shooting Joe Harris to the second team along with LeVert, the bench has plenty of firepower. As they go deeper into the season, that should manifest itself.
Evaluating the job LeVert did against the Grizzlies, including 7 of 9 three-point shooting, Harris said, "This is nothing new for Caris, but he really had it cooking today. I wish we would have put him in better spots at the end because he had such a hot hand. Memphis did a good job . . . doubling, just getting the ball out of his hands. A lot of that is on us, trying to put him in the right spots where he’s able to get a little bit more room to facilitate. He played amazing, and he’s really the reason why we got in the spot to even contest to win this game."
Indeed, LeVert’s 19-point third quarter helped the Nets wipe out a 22-point first-half deficit, and he led the 11-2 fourth-period burst that gave the Nets a two-point lead with just over four minutes left that they failed to hold.
It was an eye-opening performance that underlined the Nets’ need to find a fit between their top three scorers.
"I think we’re going to be able to mix it in no problem," Harris said. "Early in the year, [Caris] was playing great and had some really good games. But now, he’s really finding his rhythm, especially on the offensive end, and it’s certainly going to carry over – at least, in my eyes – even when Ky and KD come back."