Kevin Durant is in an unfamiliar position with the Brooklyn Nets.
Although he is widely considered one of the best players in the league and a true superstar, Durant might be without a bona fide secondary option for the first time since his rookie season with the Seattle SuperSonics.
He had Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden as teammates with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green with the Golden State Warriors. He had Kyrie Irving and Harden with the Nets, although the group rarely made appearances together during the 2020-21 regular season. Harden went down in the first minute of Game 1 against the Bucks with a hamstring injury. Irving suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter of a Game 4 loss.
Even with Harden’s injury, the Nets were considered favorites to win the NBA title, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Their blowout victory in Game 2 and close loss in Game 3 was proof of those odds being correct. However, Irving’s injury further dents Brooklyn’s chances and likely makes the Eastern conference and the entire postseason more open. In our look at championship odds entering the second round, the Bucks were +1400 and the Philadelphia 76ers were +800.
Fortunately for the Nets, Durant is capable of winning a few games without his two partners in crime. He’s a two-way force and in the conversation for the best player in the league. Entering Game 4, Durant was averaging 31.8 points on 50-40-90 shooting in 37.7 minutes per game. There’s no sign of his Achilles injury from two seasons ago bothering him.
The Nets have Blake Griffin, Joe Harris, Landry Shamet and Jeff Green, who are all more than capable rotation players. Nicolas Claxton, Bruce Brown and Mike James have received decent minutes with the injuries to Harden and Irving. Durant won’t have a true second fiddle, but he has enough help to keep the Nets in games. The problem is his opponents aren’t quite at the level LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers teams ran through for four straight seasons.
The Bucks, despite looking shaky in Games 1-3, have a two-time MVP. The 76ers have a 2020-21 MVP finalist. Both have All-Star secondary options. With Harden and Irving out, Durant’s Nets don’t quite match up to those groups. They’re still contenders, but they’re clearly in third place.
There’s enough evidence for the Nets to think getting one of the two injured stars back is enough to tilt the balance in their favor. Games 1-3 are proof of that. The biggest issue for the Nets right now is creating offense without two lead guards. Durant can get any shot he wants on the floor, but what happens when he hits the bench? What happens when he gets double-teamed? The Bucks were allowed a degree of physicality with Durant in Game 4. They’ll be even more energized if he doesn’t have viable outlets going forward.
It’s unlikely Irving comes back for Game 5. Harden, according to head coach Steve Nash, is progressing well but still needs to get enough work on the court to return. It’s more likely one or both players are available in Game 6, which is Thursday, June 17.
The Nets will have to look at Game 5 as a singular, 48-minute entity with an entirely different gameplan. They have strong perimeter scorers with Harris and Shamet. They have a high IQ power forward in Griffin. They have feisty defensive players in Brown and Green. If the Nets can turn things up defensively and get their shooters going, the Bucks will have to back off Durant to the point where he can carry them home. It’ll look and feel different, but that type of plan represents Brooklyn’s best chance to win.
Tuesday’s game will dictate Brooklyn’s present and short-term future. If the Nets win, they can hold out Harden and Irving for Game 6 without any consequences and make sure one or both are completely ready for a possible Game 7.
If the Nets lose, they’ll be forced to weigh the current chance at a championship against the risk of injury. Durant already made that decision once and it cost him a season. He got lucky. Hamstrings and ankles aren’t Achilles, but they still can carry long-term consequences if continuously aggravated.
The Nets are still contenders with Durant. Game 5 is his opportunity to stake a claim as the best player in the league. Either way, the 2020-21 NBA landscape will shift dramactically Tuesday night.