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Nets ‘next man up’ mantra faces biggest test down two superstars

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game One Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

“Next man up.”

We’ve heard those three words throughout the rigors of the regular season — a season that featured a franchise-record 38 different starting lineups and injuries to the stars to the reserves. That mantra and mentality have opened the doors for several players to make a name for themselves and snag an increased role. Brooklyn hoped the phrase was left back in the regular season, but now the “next man up” mantra has reached its biggest test.

A lot has changed since Brooklyn’s gentleman’s sweep of Boston in the first round. The Nets took Games 1 and 2 in dominant fashion over the Bucks and strolled into Milwaukee with a commanding 2-0 series lead and two healthy superstars and enough poise to advance to Eastern Conference Finals. A couple of days later, the Nets fly back to Brooklyn with the series knotted up at two games apiece ... and down two of their “Big Three.”

The Nets have been losing their big players in the biggest games of the season. James Harden suffered another hamstring injury — which the Nets diagnosed as right hamstring “tightness” — 43 seconds into Game 1 against the Bucks. He’s missed the past three games. Steve Nash said Harden will need to string together a series of “high-intensity loads” before being cleared to return. That doesn’t sound promising.

Nash said that of course before the Nets faced their latest blow in the Game 4 loss to Milwaukee. Kevin Durant passed the ball to a cutting Kyrie Irving from the left wing. Irving rose up, completed the push shot and cut Milwaukee's lead to 44-40 with 6:04 remaining in the second. But in the process, he rolled his right ankle coming down on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot. The early diagnosis, which will be confirmed following an MRI and evaluation Monday, is a sprained ankle. An X-ray confirmed there was no break.

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

After laying on the court in pain and grabbing his right ankle, Irving was swarmed by team trainers. After the dust settled, he was able to gingerly walk under his own power to the locker room and was ruled out for the remainder of the pivotal game. It was later reported that the Nets guard left the arena in a walking boot and crutches.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen with Kai in the coming days. We’ll cross our fingers and hope it’s better than missing the next game,” Nash said.

In the wake of Irving’s injury, the Nets head coach made it clear that he doesn’t plan to speed up or rush Harden — who missed 18 straight games and 20 of 21 games to hamstring issues. The Nets head coach's comments on Harden’s status did not add any optimism that would alleviate Brooklyn’s mounting anxiety.

“I think it’s an independent case. I don’t want James to be rushed back. If he’s able to play next game and the game after, that’s fantastic. If not, I don’t want to rush him back,” Nash said.

Jeff Green — who returned to play for the first time since Game 2 against Boston — explained how the timing of Irving’s injury is a tough pill to swallow. But, he added it’s time for the Nets to once again embody that “next man up” mentality.

“Of course. I hate to see anybody go down. Injuries suck,” said Jeff Green on Irving’s injury. “The timing was a little rough, but like I said before, it’s just next man up.”

So, the Nets will have to patch the loss by committee with Kevin Durant taking on a heavier scoring role and play the facilitator. Mike James — who was out of work six weeks ago after playing overseas in Russia — will have an even more increased role in Brooklyn’s deflated backcourt.

“He’s [Mike James] going to play, “ Nash said. “He’s played for us since James [Harden] went down, but everyone's got to play. All the complementary guys have to play and be aggressive and [be] confident. We’re going to need everyone to give it a great effort especially if Kai can’t play,”

James — who brings big-game experience and must-needed ball handling to the depleted backcourt — has averaged 7.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 21.5 minutes per game in the semifinal series ahead of his role increase in wake of Irving’s injury.

Although the 30-year-old guard can handle the ball with confidence, Brooklyn will need offensive boosts from Landry Shamet — who has struggled in the postseason — and Tyler Johnson — who has played only 19 minutes combined in the three games he played in the Bucks series — to adjust to playing without their superstar backcourt. And Joe Harris will have to find a way out of his slump.

“It was a big adjustment to play without him and James. But we’ve had that type of year. We have to figure it out,” Nash said.