Nets forward Kevin Durant looks on before a free throw...

Nets forward Kevin Durant looks on before a free throw against the Spurs in the first half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Jan. 9, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Can Kevin Durant rescue the Nets?

That was the operative question at the Nets’ shootaround Thursday morning as Durant spoke with reporters hours before playing his first game in a month and a half.

"I don’t look at myself as that — as a savior," said Durant, who was slated to return Thursday night against the Heat at Barclays Center. "But I know what I can do and how much I can help this team and what we’re missing as a group. But I’m not trying to go out there and win the game by myself tonight or make it all about me. I just try to go out there and help and be a good teammate and do what I do.

"I know what I bring to the table and try to do it to the best of my ability."

Durant’s absence has made it very clear what he brings to the table. Since the game in which he sprained his MCL on Jan. 15, the Nets have gone 5-16. Only two NBA teams — the Knicks and the Rockets — have a worse record during that time period. And suffice to say, neither of those teams is considered a championship contender.

Not only have the Nets lost a lot of games since Durant last stepped on the floor, but they’ve plummeted from first to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve also had to weather a fair amount of change and team drama with the trade of James Harden to the 76ers and the continuing unavailability of Kyrie Irving for home games because of his unvaccinated status.

Durant said it hasn’t been easy to watch from the sideline.

"Um, it was difficult because like I said, I couldn’t help calm some of the noise down with my play, and that’s usually the best remedy for stuff like that," he said. "And so it was eating at me that I couldn’t go out there and perform to take some pressure off the guys and the organization a bit."

Before his injury, Durant was making a bid for another MVP season, averaging 29.3 points per game. Only Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (29.8) has a higher scoring average, and Durant was tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo for No. 2 heading into Thursday night’s play.

Durant’s return could give his teammates an emotional lift as they try to climb out of a play-in position with 19 games left. The Nets entered Thursday night 4 1⁄2 games behind the sixth-place Celtics, who occupy the last non-play-in spot, and nine games behind the first-place Heat.

Durant returned to practice after the All-Star break. He said there are no minutes restrictions on his play, but the Nets’ training staff will be monitoring him.

"I feel energized," he said. "I feel grateful for the opportunity to play. It sucks being out and not being around the team. I felt bad not being able to help and contribute and try to turn some things around for us. But get an opportunity tonight and hopefully moving forward where I can inject what I do into this team, and hopefully it provides some good results.

"We know what the standings are. We know everybody’s telling us every day how far we’re dropping and where we may end up, constantly telling us the situation we’re in. But we understand that and know that each day is important, so we’re focused on tonight and just keep plugging away."

Durant believes the team can get back on track.

"I mean, we are cutting it close," he said. "There’s under 20 games left in the season. But that’s the situation we are in, that’s the circumstances we are in. We have to go out there and figure it out."

More Brooklyn Nets

Newsday LogoDON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access