If anything became clear from the Nets’ 109-98 loss to the Boston Celtics in their first game of Kevin Durant’s projected monthlong absence after spraining the MCL in his right knee, it’s this:
If they play every game the way they played the Celtics, they will be just fine until Durant returns from injury.
But they still need to tighten up if they’re going to survive a hellacious stretch that features 19 opponents jostling for playoff position in their next 22 games. After Sunday’s upcoming matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Tuesday’s subsequent game against the middling San Antonio Spurs, the Nets only have one more game against a non-playoff opponent (the tough and rugged Detroit Pistons) until March 5.
And yet there’s reason for optimism based solely on Brooklyn’s performance against the Celtics on Thursday, albeit in defeat.
The Celtics showed exactly why they’re defending Eastern Conference champions holding onto the East’s No. 1 seed. Even without Jaylen Brown, the second-most important player on a roster led by star forward Jayson Tatum, Boston continued to manufacture quality offense and lead with a defensive effort that held the Nets to just 16 points in the fourth quarter.
The Nets, however, weren’t far off.
It’s the silver lining in their first loss without Durant, who could be out until after the Feb. 19 NBA All-Star break if he and the team decide to take the cautious route. Between the victory over the Indiana Pacers with every rotation player resting, and Thursday’s effort where the wheels fell off in the fourth quarter, the Nets are in a much better position to survive Durant’s absence than they were this time last year.
Last season’s nightmare still haunts the Nets to this day, so much that head coach Jacque Vaughn — who was an assistant on Steve Nash’s staff when Durant missed a month and a half of action last season after an MCL sprain on his left knee — declined to address all that went wrong during the 11-game losing streak that unraveled their season.
Instead, Vaughn said the team won’t make any excuses for who’s not on the floor.
”You could say we’re [more] prepared [than last season for Durant’s injury],” the head coach said ahead of tip-off on Thursday. “I think we have a good group, a group that’s ready for the challenge. I think the best thing about this group is we haven’t told the group to not use excuses. There’s no excuse tonight. We have able and capable bodies ready to play and compete, and we’ll keep it as simple as that.”
Yet as hard as the Nets competed, they couldn’t kick it into another gear in the fourth quarter — and it was the most glaring area the team missed its captain. What was just a two-point game exiting the third quarter became closer to a blowout in the fourth, as “Let’s go, Celtics,” chants rained down from the Barclays Center stands.
Ben Simmons had as productive of a three quarter stretch as the team could have hoped, creating three-point opportunities in transition to the tune of 13 assists to go with nine rebounds. While bringing the ball up the court on the final possession of the first quarter, he faked calling a play with his right arm in the air as if directing teammates where to go, then rifled a pass to Joe Harris, who was trailing in transition and knocked down a wide open three during the break.
The issue with Simmons, however, quite clearly became his reluctance to shoot the basketball. He only took three shots, did not score on the night, and turned the ball over on two occasions where teammates crashed the glass when he passed out of a shot.
Kyrie Irving finished with 24 points on 24 shot attempts, T.J. Warren added 20 off the bench, Harris finished with a season-high 18 points and Seth Curry added 11 with the second unit.
It became evident very early that Simmons’ history on the Philadelphia 76ers with Curry will play a critical role during this stretch with Durant out of the lineup.
Where Durant played the entire first quarter of almost every game this season, Vaughn subbed Irving out at the 4:16 mark and went with a lineup of Simmons and four shooters: Harris, Curry, Warren and Yuta Watanabe. Simmons and Curry often played a game of cat and mouse with each other, threatening the lob or dump-off pass to Simmons in pick and roll scenarios, which freed Curry up just enough to get his shot off.
The Nets held Tatum to just 20 points on 22 shot attempts, but couldn’t keep five other Celtics players out of double figure shot attempts.
It was an effort that might win games against other opponents that aren’t defending conference champions, but the Nets will always be measured against the East’s elite, and in their first game without Durant, they fell short.