They’ve dealt with the injuries.
They’ve dealt with COVID protocols.
They’ve dealt with blockbuster trades and rotation changes.
They’ve dealt with a new head coach.
They’ve dealt with losing streaks.
And here they are, atop the Eastern Conference heading into the home stretch.
The Nets are getting healthy, and as they get healthy, they get scary. With Kevin Durant back from consecutive leg injuries, the Nets have their leader — their two-time Finals MVP — and their confidence is sky-high.
“I think we’re excited that there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “We’re getting close to the end of the season here, so I think that the sunshine is upon us, and I think there’s a little lift in spirits and everyone’s optimistic. So a lot of work to do, but I think everyone’s mood is up and ready to attack these last 11 games.”
Let’s recall just how much time they’ve missed all season: Durant has missed 36 games. James Harden has been out 13 of their last 14. Kyrie Irving took a mid-season personal leave of absence and has missed 17 total games this season. And that’s just the starters.
Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL) has been out and away from the team since Game 3. Key backup guards Landry Shamet and Tyler Johnson have each recently returned from extended injuries. Chris Chiozza broke his hand and is out indefinitely. And both Nic Claxton and Alize Johnson are in the league’s health and safety protocol.
“I think what it has done is it’s some pressure on - good pressure, healthy pressure - on us role guys,” Tyler Johnson said at shootaround on Tuesday. “You know that there’s gonna be times in the playoffs where somebody is gonna have to step up big and somebody’s gonna have to be that X-factor, make that contribution to get us over the hump. Most of us have been in these weird situations where we’ve had our roles increased and our roles diminished at different times during the year. And I think that going into the playoffs with having gone through that already, you don’t really have those ups-and-downs in your approach to that situation because you’ve already gone through it.”
The Nets have had the same motto all season. Or maybe there are two: “next man up” and “control what you can control.”
Virtually every team has had their run-in with both the injury bug and the league’s COVID-19 protocol. There is no sympathy, not for a championship contender suddenly hitting its stride at the right time.
There is also no room for the Nets to take their foot off the gas. The 76ers are one game behind them for second in the East, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks are still within arm’s reach if they get hot down the stretch.
“We understand that we need to be going into the playoffs playing our best basketball,” Johnson said. “We have been having to gear up because there’s not a lot of room for mistakes moving forward.”
It’s not going to be perfect. The Nets aren’t going to have a ramp-up as a team leading into the playoffs. Not as a healthy team, at least, but they remain championship contenders, dare one say favorites, despite not being healthy all season long.
In Brooklyn, it’s about working the margins. Even if they’re shorthanded, the Nets dealt themselves a royal flush. They just have bide time and play their cards right until everyone is back on the floor.
“What can we do in the meantime to progress and get better to grow a deeper understanding to have a better sample size of what we’re doing? And at the same time, when we do have whatever our playoff roster looks like, we have to continue to improve throughout the playoffs from game to game we have to get better,” Nash said. “Our top three guys have only played seven games. We can’t control that. We can control how we approach it but right now we can’t control who’s healthy and available so what we’ll do is play the hand that’s dealt and try to get better everyday and when those guys get back, we’ll have a different look and different rotations and we’ll try to grow that understanding as quickly as possible.
“And will that be enough? Possibly and possibly not. But we can’t worry about that. We can only worry about what we have today and what we can do today to put us in a position to be ready or better tomorrow.”