In a season that has been altered dramatically by COVID medical protocols and injuries related to playing too many games in short time span, Nets head coach Steve Nash has been forced to play lineup roulette on a game-to-game basis. He used his 25th different starting lineup in a loss to the Bulls on Sunday in Chicago and he was forced to come back with a different version against the Knicks Monday night at Barclays Center.
The one thing Nash had going for him was that James Harden returned after a two-game absence because of a tight hamstring. But Harden had to leave the game after only four minutes when he apparently aggravated the injury.
The Nets’ offense faltered a bit against the Bulls, and Nash acknowledged the impact of playing without Harden.
"Of course, it’s a factor," Nash said. "I mean, you’re losing an MVP candidate. You’re not as potent. But we still have found a way to win a lot of games this year without guys in the lineup. I just thought we weren’t quite sharp enough…I don’t want to make any excuses about who wasn’t here."
Nash experimented with a starting lineup up that included recently acquired free agents LaMarcus Aldridge at center and Blake Griffin at power forward. He wasn’t thrilled with the results and made it clear he generally likes to play with a smaller lineup. Griffin had 10 points and eight rebounds, while Aldridge finished with 11 points and three rebounds.
"The first half, I thought we did a better job," said Griffin, who did not play against the Knicks because the Nets rest him in back-to-back sets. "We got a little stagnant there. I mean, we only played like six minutes together in the second half, but I thought our spacing was good. I thought it was a fine start. We just need more time together."
At some point in the coming week, it’s possible Kevin Durant might return from his prolonged layoff resulting from a strained hamstring. He missed his 22nd straight game against the Knicks but remains an outside possibility to face the Pelicans on Wednesday or the Lakers on Saturday.
"Kevin is getting to that day-to-day point," Nash said Monday. "He needs to continue to hit his markers as far as the work load he’s able to put in, sustain and recover from before we play him, but that day is getting closer and he’s trending in a really positive direction.
"It’s possible we could see him this week, but I don’t want to make any declarations. I can’t give you much more than that, but hopefully, he can play this week. But it’s definitely not set in stone."
So there are more major adjustments coming on the horizon as the Nets (34-16), who are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with the 76ers, make their stretch run to the playoffs. Two other Nets sat out against the Knicks, including Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness) and Landry Shamet (right ankle sprain). Shamet is considered day-to-day, and the Nets got good news that the injury Johnson suffered in Chicago was not as serious as feared.
"It looks like it won’t be a long-term thing," Nash said of Johnson’s injury. "We were fearful with the nature of a non-contact injury, but we’re going to put him in a rehabilitation program. It should be a two-to-three-week thing likely, so we’re encouraged there."
Asked about the anticipation for Durant’s return, veteran forward Jeff Green said, "I’m looking forward to it a lot. You know, to see guys healthy, doing what they love. I hate seeing KD out, I hate to see James go down, I hate to see Tyler go down. Hopefully, James plays tomorrow and KD is back soon. Just to see everybody healthy so we can try to get that chemistry going again."