PHOENIX – The Nets are one piece away from winning an NBA championship this season: That piece is a healthy Kevin Durant, en route to Brooklyn via standard shipping, set to arrive at Barclays Center in 14-21 business days.
Durant’s absence, and soon-to-be return from a sprained MCL in his left knee, is the silver lining as the Nets have gone 0-2 in their first two games of their five-game road trip and ride a five-game losing streak on their way to Sacramento for a date with the Kings on Wednesday.
The Nets came up 10 points short, 121-111, in Game 2 against the league-best Phoenix Suns after coming up just four points short in Game 1 in The Bay against the Warriors.
Remember: That’s without Durant, without sharpshooter Joe Harris, and without former All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who left the fourth quarter against the Warriors with a sprained left ankle.
And without whatever moves Nets GM Sean Marks has up his sleeve as the Feb. 10 NBA Trade Deadline and ensuing buyout market of veterans looking to join a championship contender gets closer.
Durant’s absence should give the Nets reason to feel secure in their standing despite their rapid freefall down the Eastern Conference standings. The Nets assuredly have needs – an additional backup point guard, a 3-and-D wing, and added depth at the center position – but their biggest need has eluded them all season.
A clean bill of health.
Any other additions, as proved in their performance against the Suns, is icing on the cake.
That’s because if the Nets aren’t playing against LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid, they’re in position to have three of the best four players on the floor at all times. In Phoenix, it’s undeniable that the Suns were the better-coached, deeper and more cohesive team. The proof was in the pudding: The Suns have impact players at every position and a rotation that only goes eight or nine players deep.
“They haven’t dropped their heads because we’ve lost games,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “We’ve had a tough schedule with a lot of guys out of the lineup, and we can’t lose that connectivity and that energy and that spirit and the guys have been great. We hung around a long time tonight, didn’t get many breaks and played the top team in the league. To me, there’s no moral victories but we’re moving in the right direction and (when) we get some health, we’ll be able to play teams like this.”
Devin Booker scored 35 points and Chris Paul added 20 points and 14 assists. The balance on the Phoenix roster – 3-and-D shooters and big man Deandre Ayton – opened the floor for the Suns’ top dogs.
Their depth also made the difference: Mikal Bridges scored 27 points on only four missed shots, and forward Cam Johnson came off the bench and hit four threes for 16 points.
But that starpower, and the Nets have a lot of it, nearly gave the Nets the edge.
Kyrie Irving scored 26 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field, and James Harden had an off game by his own measurements: 22 points on just 6-of-19 shooting from the field to go with 10 assists and four turnovers.
The Nets are watching their depth sort itself out in real time: Rookie forward Kessler Edwards continues to stand out as the best wing at Steve Nash’s disposal. He scored 13 points, hit three threes and guarded almost every Suns player to step on the floor. Blake Griffin also bounced back from his poor shooting slump and scored 17 points off the bench, including two-of-six shooting from downtown.
Marks is responsible for sorting through the remainder of the roster, and he should have tons of inspiration after watching a near perfectly assembled Suns roster run off a victory on Tuesday night.
The Nets, however, don’t need a perfect roster, and one might assume they’ll be hard-pressed to find perfection given their lack of cap space and the lack of available players on the market.
All they truly need is what they’ve needed all along. They are championship favorites when their Big 3 is on the floor. As the losses pile, now with five losses in a row, the goal remains the same: To be the last team standing, and the Nets, if they’re fully healthy, are still on pace to finish there.