This pandemic-warped NBA season has been nothing if not an adventure for the Nets, who clinched their third straight playoff berth with 10 games left in the regular season following a win over the Raptors Tuesday in Tampa. They started their 33rd different lineup, used only eight players, and Kevin Durant was limited to 17 points on a mere seven shot attempts while adding 10 rebounds.
While it wasn’t a work of art, Durant took extreme satisfaction from how well the Nets have navigated so much adversity this season, including injuries that so far have caused Durant to miss 36 games, Kyrie Irving to miss 16 and James Harden to miss 15 and possibly the rest of the regular season while trying to get his injured right hamstring healed for the playoffs.
Taking stock, Durant said, "Just all the adversity that we fought through this year with all the injuries, protocols, trade situations, guys getting in and out of the lineup -- very proud of everybody top to bottom, everybody in the organization, but especially our coaching staff that put us all in great positions to be successful every night. A lot of the credit goes to them."
The Nets (42-20) are first place in the Eastern Conference as they prepare to face the ninth-place Pacers (29-32) and former Net Caris LeVert Thursday night at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indiana in the first game of a back-to-back set that concludes against the Trail Blazers Friday night at Barclays Center.
Through all his injuries, Durant had ample time to observe how the Nets and especially the supporting role players have grown under first-time head coach Steve Nash and have developed mental toughness reflected by their 17-13 road record.
"When you get lineup changes and guys in and out with injuries you have to be able to dig down deep and work together and problem-solve, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole season," Durant said. "That communication with the coaching staff and the players is only going to make us tighter, especially when you go on the road too."
Late against the Raptors, the Nets relied on backup point guard Mike James, who is on a 10-day contract but played every second of the fourth quarter, scoring all 11 of his points and adding six of his eight assists as the Nets outscored Toronto, 36-20.
"At his age, with his experience, he’s one of those guys you can throw in there any time and he can be himself," Durant said of James, who played with CSKA Moscow earlier this season. "He knows who he is as a player.
"Once guys figure out what their games are like and how they approach the game, it’s easier for them to just slide in and contribute right away. Mike’s one of those guys, and he got hot and we stuck with him."
Speaking of the Nets’ depth, Durant said, "That’s only good going forward for us especially headed into the playoffs. I’m looking forward to these next couple weeks. Can’t wait to get James (Harden) back and have our full team and we’ll see what happens."