Not only did the Nets get Kevin Durant back from the injury list in their victory over the Suns on Sunday, but they also got three-point specialist Tyler Johnson back after a 10-game layoff for right knee soreness. He only played 16 minutes and scored eight points, including a 2-for-4 effort from three-point range, but he provides another much-needed ballhandler in the backcourt.
Johnson can play a major role down the stretch, starting against the Raptors Tuesday night in Tampa. He said on Tuesday morning that he is not on a playing-time restriction.
The Nets (41-20) went into the game as the first-place team in the Eastern Conference, and it appears they are determined to get the No. 1 seed. "If you have the opportunity to get it, why wouldn’t you try to get it?" Johnson asked following shootaround Tuesday morning. "In the time that I’ve been here, we haven’t had a lot of conversations of, ‘Oh, we need to be the one seed.’
"But just as competitors, if you have the opportunity to be the best team in your conference, I don’t see why you wouldn’t go and try to do that."
The Nets are in the home stretch of their drive to the playoffs with just 11 games remaining, including the Raptors game Tuesday night. "We need to be going into the playoffs playing our best basketball, getting bodies back, integrating guys into the lineup as they get healthy" Johnson said. "From that standpoint, yes, we have to gear up because there’s not a lot of room for mistakes moving forward."
Fortunately, the Nets regained the services of Durant, who returned from a three-game absence for a minor thigh injury to score 33 points in 28 minutes in a victory over the Suns on Sunday afternoon. Durant scored with such ease that it was hard not to be impressed even as one of his teammates.
"He’s always been pretty damn good," Johnson said. "I watched a couple highlights of him yesterday when he was in OKC, and he was a killer. He always has been. I would say he’s the best scorer in the league, but the rest of his game and how he doesn’t force it has continued to grow as time has gone on."
Now, Durant and guard Kyrie Irving are back together. But James Harden, the third member of the Big 3 superstars, remains on the shelf with a hamstring injury. Still the Nets showed how powerful they can be with two superstars as Durant and Irving combined for 67 points in the win over the Suns.
As Johnson sees it, the frequent absences of each member of the Big 3 has forced the supporting cast members to grow in larger roles. "The way the whole year has gone has been kind of weird," Johnson said. "There’s been times when it’s just been James, times when it’s just been Ky, there was a short period where it was just KD for a couple of games. And the mixture of any two of those three playing together at different points during the year.
"What it has done is it’s some pressure — good pressure, healthy pressure — on us role guys. You know there’s going to be times in the playoffs where somebody is going to have to step up big. Somebody’s going to have to be that X Factor, make that contribution to get us over the hump.
"Most of us have been in those situations where we’ve had our roles increased and our roles diminished at certain times during the year. Going into the playoffs with having gone through that already, you don’t really have those ups and downs in your approach to that situation because you’ve already gone through it."