When the Nets defeated the Utah Jazz earlier this week, they proved a very important point. They can survive when Kevin Durant is not on the court.
Nets head coach Steve Nash has used the start of the second and fourth quarters to give Durant a chance to catch his breath. Since he returned earlier this month the Brooklyn superstar has been averaging 37.1 minutes per game and has played below 35 minutes just twice in that span, which has made finding time to rest him during a game of vital importance.
That also means it falls on the Nets’ role players to hold down the fort while Durant is on the bench. Brooklyn showed it could do that on Monday against the Jazz, one of the West’s best teams, but it will need to continue that down the stretch with Kyrie Irving limited to just two of their final nine games after Wednesday.
“We just kept it moving,” Blake Griffin said about what worked in those moments on Monday. “When you have the luxury of having a guy like Kevin on the team, sometimes guys stand around can get stagnant and sometimes you’re kind of just, like, watching him go to work. And when he comes out of the game, we have to rely on our offense. Goran (Dragić) does a great job of getting us into stuff. He’s been great, kind of taken over the offense from that perspective.
“But on top of that, Bruce (Brown), (Patty Mills), Cam (Thomas), (James Johnson) — all those guys were just making plays, I thought mostly defensively. I mean, we were getting stops and rebounds.”
Surviving those periods of the game has become even tougher as the Nets have continued to deal with injuries, aside from Irving’s limited availability. LaMarcus Aldridge has been out this week due to a right hip impingement, Seth Curry injured his ankle on Monday after just returning from an ankle ailment and the Nets are still waiting to see when or even if Ben Simmons will play this season.
That has put the task of holding off opposing teams on the shoulders of Brown, Mills, Dragic and others while Durant is catching his breath. They were up to the task, outscoring the Jazz 13-12 in the second quarter Monday night in Brooklyn and playing right with them during Durant’s break in the fourth.
“It’s just amazing. Every player loves that when you’re on the bench and your guys are just turning up like that,” Durant said. “Just happy that we got guys on this team that stay ready and want to go out there and destroy opponents. If we get up 10 or 12, you know you looking for Patty to try and shoot a three to take it up a notch, so I appreciate that.”
The Nets are still trying to climb out of eighth in the Eastern Conference and the dreaded play-in tournament, but they have to leapfrog Toronto and Cleveland to do so. With the roster still very much in flux, the Nets have to be able to survive the crucial moments that Durant is on the bench.
Monday they showed they could do it and now they have to prove that it will be a consistent thing for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.