Nets' James Harden (13) is defended Atlanta Hawks' De'Andre Hunter...

Nets' James Harden (13) is defended Atlanta Hawks' De'Andre Hunter (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Atlanta. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

Just when they were getting comfortable playing with James Harden, who recorded three triple-doubles in his first eight games since joining them in a trade, the Nets had to do without him Sunday night against the Wizards in Washington.

Harden was ruled out of the game with a left thigh contusion, but there also was an element of load management because he averaged 39.9 minutes per game since joining the Nets, who were completing the last game of a three-game trip.

"I don't think it's too severe," Nets coach Steve Nash said of Harden’s injury. "I think it's pretty manageable. It’s just a precautionary measure not to get it banged again and make it severe. I don't remember exactly when it happened. But hopefully, it's just this game."

Although he led the NBA in scoring the previous three seasons, Harden has focused on more of a playmaking role since joining the Nets. He is averaging 24.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 11.8 assists with them and recorded double-figures assists in seven of his eight games since the trade.

Kevin Durant missed the Nets’ previous 147-125 victory over the Thunder on Friday, but he returned to team with backcourt star Kyrie Irving against the Wizards (3-12). Washington features the high-scoring guard combination of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, who came into the game leading the league with 34.7 points per game. One of the Wizards’ three wins came against the Nets on Jan. 3 at Barclays Center in a one-point decision.

Speaking of Harden’s absence, Nash said, "It's a big hole to fill with all the things he does on the floor. He's a triple double threat every night. Some nights he can score the ball, some nights he can run the show, and some nights he does both.

"Having said that, we have to compete and play together and keep building and hopefully we get a win while we do that. But it's really important that we just keep doubling down on the way we play and trying to find that identity that we can continue to refine throughout the season."

The Nets (13-8) arrived in Washington on a season-high four-game winning streak and had won eight of their previous 10 games to climb to second in the Eastern Conference just 1 1/2 games behind the 76ers. Nash was pleased with the progress his team has made, but no one is taking any bows on a team that is expected to compete for an NBA title.

"I don't know that we walk around patting ourselves on the back after 4-0," Nash said. "I think the expectations are high, and we’re trying to become a better team throughout this year. So I don't think we're sitting here counting the victories. I think we're more of a group that is trying to set its sights on improvement every day. Something that I think has impacted the winning, is that I think we have found little improvements.

"Offensively, getting a feel for James and incorporating his abilities into this group, I think that's starting to flow. There's an understanding and a rhythm forming with the guys because James has a presence.

"Defensively, I think we're starting to get a little bit more comfortable in some of our schemes. You know, obviously a defense isn't our forte, so we got to work at it and be diligent with trying to just make sure we can control the things that we can control and give ourselves a chance. I think there's been slight improvements, but it's a long, long journey and we’ve got to just continue to have this type of mindset where we're looking to improve every day and not necessarily just counting the record."

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