The Nets have 27 games left to play, one-third of the season, and their 115-86 blowout of the Hornets on Saturday night in Charlotte suggested they have identified the blueprint they must follow in order to reach the playoffs without Kyrie Irving, who will miss the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
They haven’t had Kevin Durant all season because he is coming back from Achilles tendon surgery, and they only had Irving healthy for 20 games. Now they are down to the core from last year’s playoff team plus the addition of new starter Taurean Prince and veterans DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple on a second unit that is showing signs of being a difference-maker going forward.
“We miss Kyrie, we need Kyrie badly,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after the 29-point blowout win. “But it was a good performance. I was very pleased with the maturity we showed.”
The Nets tied their season high with eight scorers in double figures, and the 86 points they gave up tied their season low. Their bench outscored the Hornets’ reserves 50-27, even with Chandler going scoreless but playing a key defensive role. It suggests the Nets, who hold the seventh playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, can more than hold their own the rest of the way, starting against eighth-seeded Orlando Monday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets’ second unit is developing great chemistry. “A lot of credit goes to our vets — Wilson, DeAndre, Garrett Temple — those guys, not only what they do on the court but how they’re teaching our young guys and imparting their knowledge,” Atkinson said.
Those three veterans plus Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who led the Nets with 21 points against the Hornets, round out Atkinson’s nine-man rotation. More often than not, he subs out Caris LeVert early from the starting rotation and then brings him back with the four reserves. So LeVert is a starter who also identifies with the second unit.
“That second unit, we feel like we’re good enough to be a starting unit, so every time we’re out there, we try to get an advantage,” LeVert said. “I’m very capable of being their leader of that defensive core. When people see me locking in on defense, it challenged everybody else to do the same thing.”
Luwawu-Cabarrot led the Nets in scoring against the Hornets, but the coaching staff challenged him to be aggressive on defense, and he credits the veterans for having his back. “Having DJ and GT and Will in that lineup helps a lot,” Luwawu-Cabarrot said. “Whatever mistakes the young guys make, they just cover for us and it’s great.”
Temple said the Nets must carry the same defensive mentality over to the Magic game. But when asked about the impact he, Jordan and Chandler have made, Temple said, “I think it’s the total team that has turned things around. It helps that we have a veteran second unit . . . a calming presence of guys who know what they’re doing.”
Without Irving, the Nets understand their situation. “We know this is the team that we’re going to have going forward,” Temple said, “and everybody is filling their role nicely.”