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Tyler Johnson ready to point way for Nets in absence of Big 3

Tyler Johnson of the Nets controls the ball

Tyler Johnson of the Nets controls the ball in the first half against the Jazz at Barclays Center on Jan. 5. Credit: Jim McIsaac

No Kevin Durant. No Kyrie Irving.

Next man up? That was a huge ask for the Nets when they faced the Trail Blazers Tuesday night in Portland. Fortunately James Harden (neck soreness) was cleared to play and start just before gametime.

How many teams can sit two superstars and have a prayer of surviving? Durant hasn’t played since Feb. 13 after suffering a hamstring strain that caused him to miss his 16th straight game. Irving has been ruled out of the Nets’ entire three-game trip to Portland, Utah and Detroit to tend to "family matters." Harden had been listed as "questionable" against the Blazers because of neck soreness resulting from a blow to the head on Sunday against the Wizards, but he tested it during warmups and decided to play through it.

"It’s just a next-man-up mentality," guard Tyler Johnson said after the morning shootaround in Portland. "You get too caught up in thinking about what you don’t have. You don’t focus on the things you have right here in front of you. I think it’s just important to make sure that, when we’re out there, we’re confident and we go out there and try to win."

Had Harden remained out Johnson would have started in his place and he still was expected to play a major role off the bench. Five years ago, the Nets gave Johnson a four-year offer worth $50 million that the Heat matched to retain him as a restricted free agent. But after he was waived by the Suns last spring, the Nets signed Johnson as a free agent to complete last season in the NBA bubble in Orlando.

He wasn’t in the rotation earlier this season and only is averaging 5.1 points per game in just 15.1 minutes, but Johnson is shooting a career-high 40.8 percent from three-point range. He attributes that to the open looks he is getting because defenses must concentrate on Harden and Irving.

"I haven’t really ever had James Harden and Kyrie Irving passing me the ball and taking so much attention with them," Johnson said. "It’s kind of easy shooting open shots. It’s really just putting in the work to be a good shooter and you’re confident you’re going to be effective while you’re out there.

"Right now, during this little stretch while we’ve got some guys out, we don’t fully know what we’re going to do right away. So I’ll be ready to play when my number’s called."

Johnson is averaging just 0.9 assists per game, so replacing Harden’s role as a playmaker is a big task. "I think a lot of it is going to be by committee," Johnson said. "We’ve got guys who can help make plays. Jeff [Green] can play that point-forward role. For me, it’s just make the right play. It’s not going to be getting too caught up in ‘Oh, I’ve got to change my game.’

"I think you take a lot of pressure off yourself if you go in with the idea that when there’s a play to be made, I’m going to make it."

Harden suffered a blow to the head in the final seconds of the first half against the Wizards on Sunday but finished the game. "I got hit in the jaw," Harden explained that night. "My neck kind of twitched. I’ll be all right. It’s nothing. Get some treatment on it, get some rest."

The Nets listed him as questionable and coach Steve Nash might have been tempted by the chance to give Harden some time off because he is leading the NBA in minutes played with 37.9 per game.

"I’m concerned about the minutes," Nash admitted. "I’m not sure what the answer is, though. He controls the game. . . So it’s hard to take him off the floor because he makes his teammates better."

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