The Nets aren’t the same team without Kevin Durant on the floor, and as a result, they have to rediscover themselves.
Which is a scary thought with last season’s 11-game losing streak in Durant-less games looming in the backdrop.
It’s now two in a row — some expected a loss to the league-best Boston Celtics, but Sunday evening’s embarrassing, 112-102 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder delivered a gut punch felt throughout an organization that crumbled after Durant’s midseason MCL sprain last season.
As fans exited Barclays Center while the Thunder dribbled out the clock after turning a 10-point deficit into a 10-point victory, a feeling all too familiar spread across the arena.
Oh no. Not again.
All week, Nets players and coaches agreed with the idea they’re in better position now to sustain Durant’s injury than they were a year ago. Jacque Vaughn is the head coach, not Steve Nash. Kyrie Irving is full-time, not bound by New York City’s pre-existing COVID-19 vaccine mandate. A once bare bones roster is now loaded, even with Durant and Simmons out on Sunday.
Case in point: TJ Warren helped carry the offense with a 20-point performance against the Celtics, and Seth Curry scored a team-high 23 off the bench on Sunday.
Neither were on the roster during last season’s losing streak, nor were Royce O’Neale and Yuta Watanabe, two key off-season additions playing critical roles on the team.
Yet with Durant out — and to a lesser extent, with Simmons out while assuming a larger playmaking responsibility — the issues were expected. Irving’s individual scoring greatness is supposed to carry the Nets even more while No. 7 rehabs a second MCL sprain.
That didn’t happen on Sunday. Irving tallied just 15 points on 20 shot attempts. He only scored two points in the fourth quarter and wasn’t aggressive enough with only four field goal attempts despite the Thunder rolling back into the game late.
“These are warmup games. The big performances come in late April,” Irving said postgame. “Just have to enjoy it and smile at how you lose and be able to pick yourself back up. I’m doing the best job I can.
“I wish I could make a few more shots within the minutes and be efficient. I know that will come and I’ll continue to prepare the best way I know how and be a better example for the guys in the locker room.”
Irving’s off night was a byproduct of Durant’s absence. With a 30-point scorer on all-time shooting efficiency off the floor, it makes it easier for defenses to key in on just the star guard.
“That’s the way we’ve been playing all year. We’ve just been kind of iso-ball, relying a lot on Kevin and Kyrie just to create one-on-one offense, sometimes scoring on two or three defenders,” Curry said postgame: “So we gotta figure out other ways we’re gonna play with Kevin not out there creating shots for himself and other people.
“We’re just a different team now, so we got to figure it out.”
It doesn’t help that Joe Harris missed three open threes between the 4:11 and 3:16 mark of the fourth quarter. Just one of those falling could have swung momentum back in Brooklyn’s favor.
“I think that’s the challenge for us as a group to be able to sustain. That is harder, mentally and physically because Kevin does save you at times and give you a bucket and so now your defense is set,” Vaughn said. “That’s the challenge for this group is they have to dig in and have a mental fortitude greater than before. Because every possession does matter and that’s what we talked about yesterday. So that 50-50 ball, that loose ball, that foul for free throws, they do matter. First quarter, third quarter and obviously we’re seeing in the fourth quarter.”
With Durant out, however, there’s no question that Irving must step up and deliver. And with the schedule stiffening on the road after the upcoming Spurs game in San Antonio, the margin for error is even narrower.
“Some guys have been in this position. Some guys have not. It was all glory glory last week when we were winning games every game. And now we’re answering questions about potentially struggling,” Irving said. “I don’t’ think we are going to struggle without Kevin now. That’s not my belief. I know know guys in the locker room don’t believe that. This isn’t last year at all.
“So the comparisons have got to stop. I’ll leave it up to (media) to do that. For us we don’t have any comparison to last year, we just want to control our focus level and how we prepare.”