After the Nets traded for James Harden in January to form a "Big 3" with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, many commentators predicted an NBA Finals matching the Nets and the defending champion Lakers. Those two teams will face off Saturday night at Barclays Center, but it is anything but a playoff preview.
LeBron James will miss his 11th straight game with a high ankle sprain and Anthony Davis will miss his 25th straight game with a serious calf strain. The Lakers (32-20) are 4-7 in their past 11 games and have fallen to fifth in the Western Conference. But recent free-agent signee Andre Drummond returned from a toe injury and had 15 points and 12 rebounds in a loss Thursday at Miami. He will be a handful for the Nets to defend.
The Nets (36-16), who are one game ahead of the second-place 76ers in the Eastern Conference, will be without Harden (strained right hamstring), but Durant will play his second game after a two-month absence with a strained left hamstring. Landry Shamet also will return from an ankle sprain. In his first game back on Wednesday, Durant scored 17 points in 19 minutes and shot 5-for-5 as the Nets beat the Pelicans, 139-111.
After practice on Friday, coach Steve Nash said Durant had "no ill effects" after his return, but Harden is continuing his rehabilitation and will have another MRI examination next week.
Durant’s successful return merely underscored all the projections for the Nets to contend for a title. They were utterly dominant against the Pelicans, and the defensive attention Durant commanded opened the floor for Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
"It’s about as easy as it gets incorporating Kevin, but at the same time, you want to have enough time to jell and to really find that understanding," Nash said of Durant’s impact. "It’s been two months, so it’s great that he’s back. The No. 1 priority is to keep him as healthy and as safe as possible, which obviously isn’t completely in our control, but we can try to be as helpful as possible.
"Second is slowly ramping up his minutes in the game so he can get back to his normal output but also so that he can feel comfortable with his teammates, some of which he hasn’t really played with."
Shamet was playing exceptionally well before reinjuring a previously sprained ankle and missing the past two games and seven of the previous nine. He was a spectator at courtside for the Pelicans blowout and came away impressed.
Asked about how Durant opened up the floor for all of the Nets’ shooters, Shamet said: "It’ll open up even more when we get James back. That’s kind of the beauty, the luxury this team has. It’s just hard. You can’t take away everything, and we moved the ball really well off of Kevin. He’s a willing passer. I loved the ball movement, how we were playing together, and our pace was great. You put Kevin in the mix and it makes us lethal, so happy to have him back for sure."