Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) and guard James Harden...

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) and guard James Harden (13) high-five after a basket during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) Credit: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The Nets put themselves in a position to suffer one of the worst losses in memory when they blew all of a 21-point lead to the Pelicans, who are the worst team in the NBA this season. But when push comes to shove, the Nets have the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and James Harden, who combined to score 15 of their last 22 points in a 120-112 victory and who totaled a combined 67 points on 22-of-35 shooting plus 20 assists.

When Harden was asked after Friday night's game what any defense can do to stop him and Durant when they have it going, he hesitated, then came out with it: "Pray?"

It was a joke but also a commentary on where the Nets are headed even without Kyrie Irving, who is not in compliance with the New York City COVID-19 vaccine mandate and will not be permitted to join the team until he is eligible for all games. The first portion of the season has been an adjustment to having two superstars instead of three, but Durant and Harden might be enough to contend for a title.

"It’s difficult," Harden said of the problems the Nets’ pair poses for opposing defenses. "We’re two unselfish basketball players. We’re versatile. Obviously, Kevin is known for his efficient scoring, but he’s also a willing passer, especially when there’s double-teams.

"It’s difficult to guard him, and it’s difficult to guard me, especially when we’ve got it going. We’re so unselfish that we want to get our teammates involved and score the ball, too. We’ve just got to find ways to continue that ball movement and make sure everybody is involved."

Harden struggled early in the season because he was unable to scrimmage over the summer while rehabbing from a severe right hamstring strain suffered at the end of last season that he reinjured in the playoffs. He needed NBA game time to round into shape, and his 39-point effort against the Pelicans was his first 30-point game of the season.

"I think we’ve got to be patient with him," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "He’s still got some yards to go before he feels his best. There’s the fitness, there’s the rhythm and then there’s the confidence. For all those three things to come back, it does take time. He was great tonight and he’s been really good the last week or so and trending in the right direction."

The Nets (9-4) are 4-1 on their season-high six-game road trip, which ends against the Thunder (5-6) Sunday night in Oklahoma City. Harden has recorded two triple-doubles on this trip plus a 28-point game in Toronto that was his season-high until he scored 39 in New Orleans. He might not be all the way back, but he’s close.

"I’m getting there," Harden said. "It wasn’t going to take long…It takes a lot of hard work to be playing at a point to which you guys have seen me play at. When I’m not scoring 30 points, when I’m averaging 18-some points, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with James?’

"It’s pretty solid still. I’ve been playing so well and so extremely at another level to where you guys set standards for me, and I set standards for myself as well. For me, I just continue to work. I feel a lot better, and the work don’t stop.

"I’ve just got to continue to build. I felt like the last game in Orlando I know my pace was good, I was getting to the basket, I was finding my teammates and I just had that burst. Tonight, it was the same thing. I’ve just got to continue to compound that feeling and just keep going."

Durant already is the best player in the NBA, and when Harden gets back to full speed, he might be the second-best.

"They’re two of the best players to ever play in this league," guard Joe Harris said. "We’re very fortunate to have them both on our team, and it makes the game a lot easier."

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