Championship dreams just became regular-season nightmares for the Nets.
The Nets’ 120-105 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday at Barclays Center turned into a horror story midway through the second quarter when MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant suffered a freak knee injury and limped off the floor.
“It’ll be tough to lose him,” said head coach Steve Nash. “No one wants to see that and we’ll obviously hope for the best outcome, but regardless of the outcome, we have to continue to work, build and grow and get better and compete.”
Durant was standing in the paint on defense defending a fastbreak when Pelicans forward Herbert Jones pushed-off Bruce Brown on a drive to the rim. Brown lost his balance and fell directly into Durant’s left knee, which appeared to hyperextend.
The Nets’ star limped off the floor and into the locker room and the Nets announced he suffered “a sprained left knee.” They will update his diagnosis on Sunday, when Durant will undergo an MRI.
The Nets are a historically cautious franchise when it comes to injured superstars, so you can expect Durant to be out as long as it takes for him to feel comfortable on the court again.
It’s a tough blow for a team already battling injuries across the roster, not to mention Kyrie Irving’s ineligibility for home games.
“Tonight what happened to K (Kevin), and Kai (Kyrie) being able to play road games only and (injured Joe Harris, Nic Claxton and LaMarcus Aldridge), but we’ve been a resilient group all year since I’ve been here, so we’ve just got to keep pushing,” Nash said.
There begins the nightmare on Flatbush and Atlantic — no Kevin Durant, no NBA championship.
And if you throw an injured James Harden into the mix, Brooklyn becomes unrecognizable. Harden hit the ground hard when driving to the rim in the third quarter and landed directly on his hip and elbow. He took a few moments to get back to his feet, then needed a timeout before shooting his free throw.
Harden gutted through his hard fall and played heavy minutes to help sustain a Nets’ lead that ballooned as large as 30, their biggest halftime lead of the season with a 69-point first half when Durant played the first two periods.
He finished with 27 points, 15 assists and a crossover-to-floater combo at the 2:13 mark in the fourth quarter that put the dagger in the victory, Brooklyn’s 27th against just 15 losses. The Nets continue to jockey with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
But with Durant out, and with Irving unavailable for home games, you can expect Harden’s minutes to rack up.
“Yeah I think he’s fine,” Nash said of Harden after his fall to the ground. “He probably has a little bruise or something, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the elbow, but it’s tough. No Kyrie, no Kevin, no Joe, (James is) gonna have to play a lot. So we obviously will have to be careful as to how many games he plays at what number of minutes but we definitely are gonna need him out there.”
What was shaping up to be an early night off for Harden quickly became a 40-minute night, as the Pelicans ate into the Nets’ lead and cut the deficit to 17 points. Every time New Orleans made a rally, however, the Nets found a way to respond.
Harden came up large down the stretch, hitting a flurry of side-step and step-back threes. Rookies Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and Kesler Edwards also continued to shine in their extended minutes, another chapter of Nash’s season-long rotation experiment.
Sharpe showcased himself as a force on the glass and finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Edwards flashed his defense, athleticism, and three-point prowess, finishing with 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting from downtown.
Thomas consistently answered the bell. With Durant out, the rookie scorer stepped up to hit timely shots that kept the Pelicans at bay during their runs in the second half. He scored 20 points off the bench on 9-of-13 shooting from the field.
“Guys got to step up, it’s simple,” said Harden. “Obviously we know how great of a player KD is and what he brings to the table each and every night consistently. So guys got to step up and fill that role and just continue to compete our butts off.”
Durant’s injury, however, underscores the fragility of this Nets’ season. The MRI will tell all on Sunday. Until then, the Nets must play the waiting game.
“Yeah it’s difficult to see one of our leaders take an injury like that,” said Harden. “So hopefully it’s not too bad and hopefully he’s able to be on the court on Monday.”