The Nets are living in a world without Kevin Durant, and in that world, they aren’t as good. It’s as expected of any team that loses its best player, especially expected when that player was the front-runner for league Most Valuable Player, but it’s the current reality for a Nets team suddenly dealt a blow to their roster.
In their first game without Durant, the title-contending Nets succumbed to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 114-107. Only a game separates the two teams in the standings now, with the Nets third in the East and the Cavs fourth.
Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 27 points but poor pass from James Harden on a pivotal possession down the stretch left Irving outstretched on the ground, while Cavs’ guard Isaac Okoro grabbed the loose ball and converted on a fastbreak dunk to give Cleveland a five-point lead. Harden finished with 22 points and 10 assists but shot just 5-of-12 from the field.
Four other Nets players scored in double figures, but Brooklyn didn’t have enough firepower. Not without Durant and not without Joe Harris (ankle surgery). The Nets also missed Nic Claxton, the versatile third-year big man battling hamstring tightness.
Without Durant, the Cavaliers exploited the Nets’ shortcomings — weaknesses Durant’s abilities typically cover. Cleveland forced 14 Nets turnovers and scored 22 points off the giveaways. They also scored 13 points off offensive rebounds, and six of their players scored on double figures, led by Darius Garland, a potential first-time All-Star in Cleveland this season.
Garland has taken the reins after Collin Sexton’s season-ending injury. He finished with 22 points, 12 assists and two steals, a crafty guard who gave the Nets’ issues on both ends of the floor.
“Well, I think he’s a really well-rounded point guard; he can shoot in all three levels, he’s I think a good decision maker, he’s very poised,” Steve Nash said of Garland. “I think he is able to make his teammates better. So he kind of has all the tools you want, coupled with I think great speed and quickness. So he’s got all the tools, and I think that’s why he’s becoming an elite point guard.”
Fortunately for Brooklyn, they have Irving on the road. If they didn’t, now would have been the time management reversed course.
The Nets will play eight of their next 10 games on the road, including their next three games and a five-game West Coast road trip. While they will undoubtedly struggle at home without Irving, their odds in away games are much stronger with Irving now eligible to play despite his unvaccinated status.
Nets head coach Steve Nash said he doesn’t know if Durant’s injury creates any additional pressure for Irving to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in hopes of joining his team full-time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what he thinks about the shot, really.”
Nash said he doesn’t want to rush Irving’s return process, but with Durant out, and a wide-open Eastern Conference, that may not be possible, especially with as many road games as the Nets have on the docket.
“I want Kyrie to have the space to kind of regain his rhythm, and not overburden it with ‘now that Kevin’s out, you have to take the game over and lead league in scoring,’” Nash said. “I want him to find his legs without feeling an extra burden. I think it’s not straightforward. He hasn’t played for six-plus months, and then coming back into the NBA game with little cadence and difficult practice opportunities, I think we have to give him that space to also find his rhythm without feeling overburdened or feeling too much pressure to do things too quickly.
“He already has shown he’s right there, his game’s right there, and in no time I think we’ll see the Kyrie that we all expect. But I don’t want to feel like he has to be that all at once.”