The narrative around the Nets this season has been one of lacking. Not lacking talent, or wins, or, on most nights, even effort. But lacking the presence of some of the biggest names on their roster, and the boost that comes with having once had three of the most intimidating players in the NBA.
But we all know the script: Kyrie Irving can’t play home games because he’s unvaccinated, James Harden was unhappy in Brooklyn and is trying to capture a championship in Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons? Well, who really knows what’s going on with him. Steve Nash revealed Friday that Simmons had an MRI on his back weeks ago; he’s never practiced with the team and he hasn’t resumed individual workouts.
So, with 11 games left and the fourth-place Jazz on the menu for Monday, the Nets again are trying to puzzle out a deep playoff run in a world where there is no certainty on what the lineup will even look like three weeks from now.
Friday, in their sloppy win against the lowly Trail Blazers, so much of that came to the forefront. Kevin Durant, as he is every time he’s healthy, nearly did enough to carry the team on his own. But despite his 38 points, he was unhappy with his approach early in the game, and, without Irving and Simmons in the picture, he’s spending night after night getting double- and triple-teamed..
The result is a group that’s had to lean heavily on its supporting cast in big-game situations, including Friday, when Bruce Brown scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and Seth Curry hit pivotal shots down the stretch to keep them afloat even when Durant was on the bench. And they’ll need that and more if they’re going to jostle for playoff positioning: They’re in eighth place now, and though having to be in the play-in tournament isn’t ideal, it seems all but certain.
"It’s my job to step on the floor, be aggressive, knock down shots," Curry said. "And like I said, just try to create space for [Durant], make the game easier for him. Just keep the game simple. You shouldn’t be able to run two, three guys at a player the entire game without having to pay for it. I think we did a good job of taking advantage of it tonight."
Curry has been unequivocally skilled in that since he came over in the Harden trade. Despite missing three games with left ankle soreness — something he said he’ll have to deal with all season — he scored 27 points in his return against the Trail Blazers in 38 minutes, which was far more than Nash was hoping to play him. He’s averaging 16.8 points in 12 games with the Nets, and shooting 47.6% from three-point range, nearly eight percentage points better than when he was on the 76ers.
And he keeps the defense honest, Durant said. Especially without Irving there to take some of the pressure off.
"More shooters on the floor definitely helps, more creators and guys that can create for themselves definitely helps," Durant said. "You can’t load up as much or can’t focus too much on one guy, so you’ve got a few guys that can penetrate and make plays like Goran [Dragic] tonight, Seth tonight [and] Bruce. I think they all got downhill pretty well and were able to loosen some stuff up for me. When everybody’s aggressive like that, we’re a great team."
Not that all the extra attention on him is an exclusively bad thing, Durant said. Just an annoying one.
"It’s only going to make me better as a basketball player, and I feel like since the start of the season, I’ve been getting playoff-like defensive coverages," he said. "It’s only going to prepare me for that time . . . I’ve been getting prepared, I guess, since November."
And in that, the Nets certainly aren’t lacking.