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Kevin Durant ‘outside possibility’ to return Monday but he and James Harden out Sunday

Brooklyn Nets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The long-awaited return of Kevin Durant is inching closer and closer as the Nets sit atop of the Eastern Conference standings.

Durant, who last played against the Warriors on February 13, is an “outside possibility” for Monday’s game against the Knicks, Steve Nash said. Moreover, Nash said that the Nets superstar has a “high probability” he can return sometime this week.

“I’m not certain for Monday. That’s an outside possibility but I also couldn’t say he’s in any stretch probable for Monday,” Nash said during the team’s practice Saturday. “We’ll wait and see but it does look positive that this week some time there’s a high probability that he can return.”

However, not long after Nash met with the media, the team announced both Durant and James Harden will not play Sunday vs. the Bulls.

Durant has said he is feeling “great” and is progressing pretty well towards returning to the court. The Nets superstar remains cautious with his hamstring and didn’t want to force or aggravate the injury further knowing the severity behind it.

“Initially, I didn’t think it was that bad - just a regular strain. Then we got the second can and they say it was a little deeper than that,” Durant said Thursday. “It was one of those things where I’m not feeling a ton of pain, but you don’t want to force one of these injuries and make it worse.”

From one superstar to another: after practice, Steve Nash said James Harden’s availability for playing Sunday remains “up in the air” but that hope returned to earth with the announcement he’ll be out. Still, Harden did practice Saturday with the team. Nash said the team would use his performance Saturday to decide whether he’d be a go against the Bulls Sunday afternoon but as usual, they’ll remain cautious.

“We’ll see. It’s up in the air. He’s working out right now and we’ll see how it goes. It’s very possible and we’re also going to be very cautious if it is at all a risk,” Nash said on Harden. “We’ll see how he comes out today.”

With Durant nearing a return and the Nets potentially have a fully healthy roster, chemistry will certainly be tested. Despite not having Durant on the court for nearly two months during which the Nets added Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, Nash is hoping that practice time, even if limited, will serve as a “really important component of it.”

“I think that’s fair. I think that is a really important component of it,” Nash said on off-the-court practice time being used to build chemistry. “Our team about midway through this year on the west coast trip, I thought really turned the corner as far as chemistry off the court.”

As Nash said Saturday, there’s nothing that equates to playing a real game against real competition despite growing connectivity and comradery. A fully healthy roster in games will also bring adversity - an element Nash said is also important when building chemistry for a team with championship aspirations.

“That bond and connectivity seemed to grow there but you have to play. You have to play against good competition. You have to see different lineups, matchups and have a bunch of stuff thrown at you for you to fully gel. It’s important that if we have the luxury that everyone’s in the lineup to play some games together, to see different looks and to face some adversity, it’ll be great.”

Joe Harris, who is the longest-tenured Net, agrees. Aside from the lack of in-game chemistry, Harris talked about how even when certain players aren’t playing games, everyone is locked in during practice and envision a role for themselves once back on the court.

Durant’s transition back to playing will be “seamless” in Harris’ eyes. He is not only familiar with most players on the team and has been building chemistry with Aldridge and Griffin in practice.

“I think that a lot of it is that we had a lot of guys in and out that have played with certain lineups. Just because they aren’t playing a ton of games, we’re still getting practice time with them,” Harris said.

“We’re still building comradery that way where Kevin isn’t exactly playing, it’ll be a seamless transition for when he does come back. He’s a smart player. He’s watching guys playing and he’s also familiar with how he played with us beforehand, played in some of the practice sessions and the same thing with LaMarcus, Blake, and the other guys we’ve incorporated in. The advantage we have with them is that they are smart players that have seen the team play. come in thinking of a role themselves and have the team have the best success.”

To complement the chemistry is the Nets loaded depth chart, especially in the frontcourt. Harris noted how a majority of players have embodied the “next man up” mentality and have played different roles with the team being shorthanded, which will serve as a plus for building late-season chemistry.

“We’ve had a lot of variation. We aren’t the only team that’s gone through this. It’s definitely difficult circumstances for everybody and I think we’re fortunate we have a lot of depth and we have guys that are familiar with the system and what their roles are on the team,” Harris added. “When there is someone out, we’re able to have the next man up mentality where there isn’t a ton of tip-off.”

The glory of having depth is the number of combinations Nash can throw out there on the hardwood. The depth Sean Marks stockpiled for his coach allows the Nets to go extremely small or extremely big.

“We have a lot of possible combinations. From Kevin and Jeff at the five all the way through Blake. Nic, LaMarcus and almost the same options at the four. We can play extremely small at times. We can play with James at the 4. We can play a big with Kevin at the 3 and two traditional bigs,” Nash said.

In the end and depth aside, Nash knows it will take time for the Nets to create the rotations and envision how the team can be most effective. It’ll come down to how the team faces adversity and overcomes the struggles of a first-year team chasing a championship.

“It gives us a lot of optionality but at the same time, I think we have to get some runway of time together to go to those edges of our possibilities. It’s there and it’s possible. That goes back to Sean [Marks] giving us lots of options with the roster. Now it’s a matter of how quickly we can create connectivity, an understanding, gel in various combinations and how effective we can be,” Nash added.

“It’s all great to have a plan but when you get punched in the mouth, how are you going to respond. That’s the layer to this that is out there for us to strive for and realize how many of our combinations can face adversity and then overcome it.”

Indeed, the Nets are loaded with talent but the team need experience playing together under the bright lights in the big city and overcome adversity. That, said, will be the main challenge the team will have to face before the playoffs.

“I think a lot of first-year teams struggle to compete for a championship, if for no other reason than that collective history and experience. That’s something we have to accept and overcome.”