The Nets' Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons talk...

The Nets' Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons talk during a timeout against the Heat in the second half of an NBA preseason game at Barclays Center on Oct. 6, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

This could go a couple of different ways. The Nets without Kevin Durant could either be a touching tale of redemption . . . or they could be a horror show.

Both seem equally possible as the Nets open an extended  stretch without their superstar shot-maker. Durant, who had been playing at an MVP-candidate level, is expected to be out for at least a month after suffering an isolated MCL sprain of his left knee Sunday in Miami.

Durant and his consistently high-level play have been the biggest reason that the Nets entered Thursday night’s showdown with the Celtics with 18 wins in their last 20 games. During that time period, the Nets went from a tie for 10th place in the Eastern Conference to entering Thursday with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Celtics, who were 30-12.

While coach Jacque Vaughn believes everyone has to step up during Durant's absence, the majority of the pressure will fall on Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.

Let’s start with Simmons, because his path to redemption is less complicated

Simmons is one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, mostly because his skill set is so unusual. With some help from Nic Claxton, Simmons is a major reason why the Nets' defense has been so good this season. Simmons also does just about everything you would want on offense — except drive to the basket and make free throws.

Simmons’ problems in Philadelphia came to a head when he passed open a wide-open dunk against Atlanta in the final seconds of a 2021 playoff game. The reaction from the 76ers fans and even coach Doc Rivers was so merciless that Simmons sat out the following season and asked to be traded. When he failed to play a game for the Nets in the playoffs last season as he dealt with back and mental health issues, fans had good reason to wonder if he would ever return to the All-Star caliber player he once was.

Simmons has taken some steps in that direction this season, especially on defense, but still has been reluctant to drive to the basket as much as the Nets need him to. Entering the Boston game, Simmons was averaging 3.2 drives a game. Contrast that with his last season in Philadelphia (2020-21) when he averaged 10.2.

Without Durant, Vaughn says the Nets need Simmons to be more aggressive.

“The next step is to play every possession with force,” Vaughn said of Simmons. “The beginning of a possession all the way to the end of it. And so that becomes a habit that you consistently [do] from possession to possession and game to game. So the pace that he’s going to create for us, the easy shots that he has to create for us because of the pace, it’s a necessity. And looking forward to it.”

And then we have Irving, who becomes the undisputed leader of the Nets now that Durant is out.

Since coming back from his eight-game suspension after he linked to an antisemitic movie on his social media, Irving has been everything the Nets could ask for on the floor. Not only is Irving averaging 26 points per game entering Thursday night, he’s coming up big when the Nets need him most.

“He just has a way of embracing that moment no matter what happened previously,” Vaughn said after Irving scored seven points in the final minutes of a win over the Pelicans on Friday. “He has an unbelievable ability to erase what happened before and be in the moment and take full advantage of that moment and shine.”

Some fans may never forgive Irving for his social media mishap or that  his lack of vaccination status sidelined him for a bunch of games last season. But if he continues to play the way he is playing — and he keeps the Nets in the mix until Durant gets back — a lot of teams will overlook that.

For a player on a one-year contract, this may be the ultimate redemption chance. Stay tuned.

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