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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Fatigued Nets face bumpy road and will need Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin soon

Nets forward Kevin Durant shoots before an NBA

Nets forward Kevin Durant shoots before an NBA game against the Kings at Barclays Center on Feb. 23. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s not a matter of all good things must come to an end. Plenty more good things lie ahead this season when Blake Griffin makes his Nets debut against the Wizards Sunday night at Barclays Center and then Kevin Durant is deemed healthy enough to play meaningful basketball in the stretch run leading to the playoffs.

The Nets were unbelievably hot for more than five weeks without the services of either of those two stars, winning 14 of 15 until running into an unexpected buzz saw Friday night in Orlando, where a Magic team that had lost nine straight hit 21 of 40 three-point shots while the Nets only made 10 of 37 from deep. That was the difference in a six-point loss.

The way normally deadly three-point shooters badly missed wide-open looks suggested their long run of success while playing shorthanded finally caught up to the Nets. Joe Harris, who came into the game ranked second in three-point percentage at 50.0%, made just three of 13, James Harden, who has struggled recently from three-point range, made two of eight, and reliable Jeff Green was 0-for-2 on unguarded looks.

"I think James and Joe felt fatigue," coach Steve Nash said. "They had a heavy burden [Wednesday] against Indiana, so I think those two for sure probably felt some fatigue in their legs. We had great energy and activity from a lot of guys, but that doesn’t mean your legs are going to be there in your shot."

Kyrie Irving returned from a one-game absence and scored 43 points in the loss, but he was critical of the Nets for settling for threes in the fourth quarter after they cut a 19-point deficit to four with a 16-1 run.

"I feel like we had a lot of shots that were very makeable with the great shooters on our team," Irving said. "But down the stretch I think with three minutes and thirty seconds left, I just felt like we didn’t have to press as much from the three-point line. We could’ve taken some easy twos.

"Obviously, I am expecting Joe to knock down those threes, I’m expecting James to knock down those threes, I’m expecting JG in the corner to knock down that three, Landry [Shamet] in the same right corner to knock down that three to give us some breathing room…It’s just one of those nights. You’ve got to give them credit for pressuring us every time down."

The Nets (28-14) are in the midst of a tough stretch of schedule in which they play five of six games on the road. They return from a two-game trip to face the Wizards (15-25) Sunday night at home before embarking on a brutal three-games-in-four-nights swing to Portland, Utah and Detroit.

Asked if there was any particular message in the postgame locker room, Bruce Brown said, "Just keep pushing. We haven’t beaten the Wizards yet, so we have to lock in Sunday and focus on the Wizards . . . As we [saw] tonight, teams have got to be perfect to beat us. If we lock up on the defensive end, we win."

While it was just one unexpected loss to the Magic, there is no letup in the schedule. It underlined the increasing urgency for Griffin, who signed as a free agent over the All-Star break, and for Durant, who slowly has been working his way back from a left hamstring strain, to start playing. On Saturday afternoon, the Nets announced Griffin is available against the Wizards, but Durant likely will take at least another week. With 30 games left in the regular season, they need as much time as possible to build chemistry with the group.

"I am super excited," Irving said of the Nets’ prospects to win an NBA title. "It’s just a high level of talent out there. When you can just prepare for the game and go over the X’s and O’s, you can look to your left and right and know the guys next to you have your back and you’re able to play at a high level offensively and defensively and make an impact.

"You’ve got to look forward to that. I look forward to it for sure. As a competitor wanting to be on the main stage [at the Finals], we want all our guys healthy. Hopefully, we can hit a stride at the right time and make a run. But this is just great practice ground right now to just get as healthy as we can before stepping into the playoffs soon, very soon."

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