Kevin Durant missed his 10th game of the season when the Nets played at Sacramento Monday night, but for the first time, it was an actual injury that prevented him from playing. Durant previously missed six games in quarantine as a result of NBA COVID-19 contact tracing, and he rested three times to prevent fatigue during his comeback from Achilles tendon surgery.
But in this case, Durant suffered a left hamstring strain in the Nets’ victory Saturday at Golden State and is expected to miss at least two games, including the second game of a back-to-back set Tuesday night in Phoenix. The Golden State game was his first game back from a three-game quarantine, so the injury short-circuited a chance for the Nets to build chemistry with their Big 3 of Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. The trio has played only six games together.
"Yeah, it's been extremely difficult," Joe Harris said following a Monday morning shootaround in Sacramento. "But this is just part of this season, you know? We're not the only team that's experiencing this, that's gone through a number of difficult situations. It's just about being flexible and resilient to what's going on, and just trying to make the most of what we have currently.
"Now I think we just look at it as a positive that we got DJ back. Kevin is back - but obviously needs to get healthy – and then we just kind of move forward with the group that we have."
Harris was alluding to the return of center DeAndre Jordan, who missed the Golden State game for family-related personal reasons. In the previous game, Jordan set the tone for the Nets’ best defensive performance of the season in a home win over the Pacers when Durant was out, so it figured the Nets (16-12) would try to replicate that formula against the Kings (12-14), who had lost three straight at home and were on the second night of a back-to-back set.
"Yeah, I think against Indiana is when we made a considerable step forward, just having a lot more focus, attention to detail on the defensive end, guys picking up for one another, a better layer of communication across the board," Harris said. "We were just much more locked in. You could feel it from the start. I felt that even against Golden State, and hopefully, we can continue the trend tonight against Sac."
The Nets actually put together a second straight strong defensive performance against Golden State even though 6-4 Bruce Brown replaced the 6-10 Jordan at center. It was essentially a four-guard lineup with Durant at power forward because coach Steve Nash prefers to use small-ball center Jeff Green with the second unit and to close games. Jordan’s return likely meant Brown would replace the 6-10 Durant at power forward in another four-guard lineup with Harris, Irving and Harden.
Brown is known as a solid perimeter defender, but he more than held his own in the paint, and he was surprisingly strong on offense, scoring 18 points (8-for-12 shooting) to go with seven rebounds.
"We had a game plan, and we went out there and did it perfectly," Brown said of the win at Golden State. "We knew they were going to help off me, so once they left me, I just cut to the rim and was wide-open every time. I’m used to teams leaving me because of the scorers we have on the floor when I’m out there."
Of course, the Kings also have accomplished scorers with the likes of guards De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield and forward Harrison Barnes. So defense had to remain the Nets’ No. 1 priority.
"We know the defensive end is going to be huge for us because we can score the ball," Brown said. "If we can get stops on the defensive end, we can just blow teams out. So we have to lock in on the defensive end, communicate and then we’ll be good."