Nets forward Kevin Durant looks on against the Pelicans in the...

Nets forward Kevin Durant looks on against the Pelicans in the first half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Jan. 15. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For nearly seven weeks, the Nets have patiently been waiting for the savior in the wings. In that time, they fell from first place to eighth, went 5-16, and traded away a disgruntled superstar in James Harden.

Thursday, the wait is over. And, the Nets hope, their true playoff push can begin.

After going down with an MCL sprain in a Jan. 15 win over the Pelicans, Kevin Durant will suit up for the Nets in their home game against Miami Thursday, the team announced via Twitter Wednesday. And with that, Durant will hope to make good on what at times seemed like starry-eyed optimism on the part of Steve Nash, who has insisted throughout that eventually, everything will come together just in time.

"I don't think we're worried," Nash said weeks ago, on the heels of an 11-game losing streak. "We're excited. I have a lot of belief. It's not straightforward knowing we've still got big pieces out of the lineup."

But though Durant is unmistakably a game-changer, if not arguably the best player in the league when healthy, the Nets have a significant battle ahead of them. The playoffs seem like a lock, especially now, but excelling when they get there, and avoiding the problems that hampered them last year will prove to be challenges all their own.

Though Durant himself had a historic performance in the Eastern Conference finals, the team was hampered by injuries, and they simply can’t afford for that to happen to the head of their Big 3. It’s the reason the Nets have been so cautious with his return, and why they’ll be vigilant in looking for potential setbacks.

But there are factors that extend beyond Durant — specifically, whether Kyrie Irving will eventually be able to play in New York despite not being vaccinated. It doesn’t help either that, if the season were to end today, the play-in game would be against the Raptors, and Canada currently isn’t letting unvaccinated players in the country. For now, Irving can only play in seven of their final 19 regular-season games — not to mention the home games he might miss in the playoffs.

And then there’s the nebulous return of Ben Simmons. Simmons, the centerpiece in the Harden trade, hasn’t played since last June.

The Nets were originally sitting him for reconditioning, but recently, he’s been experiencing a sore back that may be more serious than the "little flare-up" Nash described Monday.

While Simmons wasn’t expected to practice this week, and is undergoing physical therapy for his back, a report from ESPN Wednesday indicated he may not even be ready this month.

Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, "told me over the weekend that Ben is now considered week-to-week," Brian Windhorst said on SportsNation. "He’s had some back soreness — that’s what Steve Nash referred to it as. You know, six or seven days ago, the [Nets] had a plan in place, that’s what I was told, that would have had both Durant and Ben Simmons back active by that game on March 10 (when the Nets take on Simmons’ old team, the 76ers). But now that plan has been scratched.

"He’s frankly not close. I don’t even know he’s going to be back in March."

The report jibes with earlier comments by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who said the Nets were "hopeful" to get Simmons back before the playoffs.

Simmons may be an elite defender and playmaker, but heading into the playoffs cold, and largely with players he hasn’t suited up with before, can present its challenges. Nash said he hasn't yet progressed to high-intensity activity.

"Ben is still working through a number of things, reconditioning," Nash said Monday. "He’s not going to play this week but we’re going to keep working on his timeline and hopefully he progresses well."

The Nets may have to count on it, but for now, they’ll be happy that their primary savior is no longer in the wings.

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