Kevin Durant’s injury brings uncertainty back to streaking Nets

MIAMI — The Nets came into Sunday’s game having won 17 of their last 19 games, but that may not have been the biggest streak the organization had going for it: Brooklyn posted three straight games with a clean injury report, which the team had previously lacked in the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era.

That streak seems likely to end soon.

Kevin Durant exited the Nets’ 102-101 win in Miami in the third quarter with a right knee injury after Jimmy Butler fell on him on a layup attempt. The play happened with a little over a minute remaining in the quarter. Durant tried to stay in and play but was subbed out shortly after and headed to the locker room. He did not return to the game, and Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said Durant will be evaluated on Monday and likely have imaging done on his knee. Brooklyn’s next game is Thursday at home against the Boston Celtics.

The Nets trailed by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter Sunday but rallied to win after Seth Curry led a comeback and Royce O’Neale scored off Kyrie Irving’s missed 3. Butler’s layup attempt at the buzzer was off. The win marked the Nets’ 18th in their last 20 games, a franchise best for a 20-game span, but now the team awaits word on Durant.

“He’s in good spirits, as we all are,” Irving said. “The strength of our team is us picking each other up and just being ready for whatever is thrown at us.”

A year ago, Durant sprained his left MCL against the Pelicans in a collision with Bruce Brown. At the time, the Nets were near the top of the Eastern Conference at 27-15, and Durant left the team to a part-time Irving and James Harden. When he returned after missing 21 games, the Nets were in the mix for the Play-In Tournament due to a 5-16 showing without him, and Harden had been traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons, Curry, Andre Drummond and picks.

Durant later said his injury “derailed” the Nets season, which ended with a first-round sweep by the Celtics. The team’s 11-game losing streak, which came without Durant, factored into his trade request this past summer, as he said the team’s inability to compete without him was glaring given the remaining roster talent.

But perhaps the Nets are in better position this season to handle a stretch without Durant. Irving has been playing at an All-NBA level since returning from his eight-game suspension due to his promotion of an antisemitic documentary. Nic Claxton has emerged as an up-and-coming two-way player, as he leads the league in field goal percentage and is tied for blocks per game. TJ Warren gives Vaughn another scoring threat who can help fill the void Durant would leave and the team lacked last year with Irving in and out of the lineup and Joe Harris injured.

Curry scored nine of his 14 points in the fourth quarter Sunday, making all four shots, while Claxton chipped in six of his 13 to aid Irving and chip away at a nine-point deficit. Durant’s absence cost the Nets another ballhandler, and Vaughn’s late lineup could be a sign of how the Nets might operate without him.

“It was a little bit of a combination of what group was going to be out there to help us at that time,” Vaughn said. “So, they were really being aggressive with Ky, so we needed another ballhandler in the game. That’s how Seth came into play. Then because they were trapping, [we] put Yuta [Watanabe] in the corner; hopefully he gets an open 3 and stretches the floor for us. He was pretty solid defensively, so that was my rationale in finishing with that group.”

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Reserves such as Markieff Morris, Patty Mills and Cam Thomas can provide the Nets with some offense despite playing sparingly this season. During their current run, the Nets’ are beating the teams they should and not overlooking short-handed rosters. Simply continuing to beat non-playoff teams would put the Nets in a better position than last season. According to Tankathon, the Nets have the 18th hardest remaining schedule in the league.

“I think everybody would just have to step up,” Claxton said of a possible stretch without Durant. “It’s not the first time that he’s been out or Ky’s been out, so everyone just has to step up a little bit, and we’ll be all right. We hope he’s available for next game, but whatever happens, we’ll adjust, and we’ll be all right.”

A Durant absence also highlights the lack of size on the Nets’ roster. Claxton is the team’s lone true big outside of Day’Ron Sharpe, who has spent most of his sophomore season in the G League and puts more of a rebounding burden on Claxton and Simmons. Durant’s diagnosis might change the front office’s thinking ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline too.

For the past three seasons, the only certainty around the Nets has been uncertainty, as constant injuries and attrition prevented the team from being whole. Now their longest stretch without drama and with continuity has yielded an 18-2 mark. But the uncertainty has returned, and the Nets’ season could be defined by how they handle it.

(Photo of Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler: Michael Laughlin / USA Today)

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