Injuries are not an excuse. They are a fact of life. And the fact is that the Nets’ "superteam" of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden was crippled by injuries to themselves for much of the regular season before Harden and then Irving went down during the second-round playoff loss to the Bucks that cut short their quest for an NBA title.
Harden reinjured his right hamstring 43 seconds into Game 1 against the Bucks, and after Irving suffered a terrible right ankle sprain in Game 4 that took him out of the series, Harden willed himself back onto the floor to play 46, 40 and 53 minutes in the final three games of their 4-3 series loss.
Asked to describe the fortitude required to play injured the way he did, Harden came clean about an injury the Nets described as "right hamstring tightness."
"It’s basically a Grade 2 hamstring strain," Harden said. "So the first possession of Game 1 up until Game 5, that was the first time I did any basketball competition against anybody. I was just literally going out there on a limb. I didn’t really have an opportunity to test it other than in games.
"It’s frustrating. We gave it everything we had. Just having to deal with injuries throughout the course of the year set us back, whether it’s Kevin twice, myself twice, Ky in the postseason. It’s draining, and it’s very difficult to fight through when basically the three best players are in and out of the lineups. We’ve just got to take care of our bodies and be ready to go for the next one."
The Nets finally ran out of gas in overtime of Game 7, scoring two points on 1-for-12 shooting. Durant missed his final six shots in OT after scoring a Game 7 record-high of 48 points.
"We leaned on Kevin a lot to do most of the playmaking, which was another frustrating thing because that’s kind of my job," Harden said, acknowledging he was in no condition to do it. "He did everything he could."
Despite the outcome, it was an unbelievably valiant effort. Durant downplayed the level of adversity the Nets faced, saying he was proud of the NBA for the way every team navigated a condensed 72-game schedule, COVID-19 protocols and their own injuries. He shrugged off his magnificence in producing a 49-point triple double in Game 5 and his incredible Game 7.
But when asked about the impact of injuries to Irving and Harden, Durant said, "Oh man, I can’t even speak about how much we missed Kyrie and how much we missed James to start the series. I could go on for 40 minutes about both of those two, on how much they care about us and how much they put their bodies on the line to help us out as a team.
"Kyrie had a gruesome ankle injury and all he was thinking about is when he could play next. James playing on one leg and gave it his all . . . There’s nothing but respect and love for those two guys. We missed them, but we still had a chance to win."
Harden praised the effort all the Nets made, saying, "It was a joy to come in and be around these guys from top to bottom."
Obviously, health will be the critical factor for the Nets next season, but the bonds they formed this season should endure. As Durant said, "We’re going to be thinking about this the next few weeks, but we’ve got to turn the page and keep getting better. I know continuity is a huge thing in our league . . . For us, we try to give each other a summer, keep grinding and come back next year."