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Nets’ resilience has reached its toughest test: ‘We just got to keep going. Keep pushing’

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets (27-15) were fighting their way out of a season-worst slump, beating the dog days of the season, when it happened. The team suffered a huge blow, losing Kevin Durant to an MCL sprain in his left knee in the second quarter of Brooklyn’s 120-105 win over New Orleans Saturday night. The diagnosis: the Nets superstar will likely miss 4-to-6 weeks, maybe 20 games, a quarter of the season.

“Of course it would be tough to lose him,” said Steve Nash after Saturday night’s win over NOLA. “No one wants to see that. We’ll obviously hope for the best outcome, but regardless of the outcome, we have to continue to work, build and grow, get better and compete.”

The silver lining — glass half full? — is that it could have been worse. Not that that’s much consolation at the beginning of a long rehab. The loss of the league’s leading scorer and arguably the best player on the planet puts Brooklyn in at least an uncomfortable situation and offers the biggest test for the resilient group that’s already seen a lot.

Let’s take it from the top. KD’s MCL sprain is added to a long list of injuries to key personnel — Joe Harris (left ankle surgery), Nic Claxton (non-COVID illness followed by left hamstring tightness), LaMarcus Aldridge (COVID followed by right foot soreness), James Johnson (both COVID and non-COVID illness), Paul Millsap (time off for personal reasons), David Duke Jr (hip flexor) and health and safety protocols galore. Not to mention Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated keeping him out of Barclays Center. More on that in a moment.

In the latest injury update alone, Claxton is questionable and Aldridge probable for Monday’s game against the Cavaliers, the little-used Millsap out once again because of undisclosed personal issues. No Net has played in every one of the team’s 41 games.

“Yeah. I mean tonight with what happened with K [Kevin Durant] and then Kai [Kyrie Irving] being able to play road games only, and then Joe [Harris], Nic [Claxton], LaMarcus [Aldridge],” said an exasperated James Harden Saturday. “We’ve been a resilient group since I’ve been here and we just got to keep going. Keep pushing. Keep pushing.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

There are, if you look close enough, some bright spots. Brooklyn plays 11 of their next 14 games on the road, meaning Irving will get a lot of time on the home courts of other teams. That helps lift some of the additional load Harden will need to bear with Durant out for an indeterminate amount of time. Indeed, last season, the Nets went 16-3 last season with Harden and Irving playing but without Durant in the lineup. Of course, Harris was available for those games. So, it’s complicated. Regardless, the Nets head coach knows Harden’s load is something to watch in the coming weeks.

“It’s tough. No Kyrie. No Kevin. No Joe. He’s going to have to play a lot,” said Nash on Harden’s load. “We’ll have to be careful with how many games he plays at what number of minutes, but we’re definitely going to need him out there.”

It’s likely that sometime during KD’s absence, Harris will return. No word on whether he traveled with the Nets when they flew out of Newark Airport for Cleveland Hopkins earlier Sunday. Having him in the lineup would be a big help.

And Harden IS on a roll. In the last five games, played over seven days, he’s averaging 24.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 11.8 assists — and only 4.4 turnovers — with shooting splits of 46/41/92. He may be 32 years old, but he’s proved he is durable and resilient, playing 38 minutes per game. And there’s something else he’s been providing and will need to provide at a higher level: leadership.

Yes, the Nets found four sturdy lifeboats in the 2021 Draft, players who have helped keep the ship afloat during a series of storms — Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe, Kessler Edwards and David Duke Jr.

Their numbers are very, very good, but there’s another element that needs to be considered when discussing their unexpected success: Harden’s mentoring. You can see it in alley-oops to Sharpe or on-court instructions to Edwards.

“They’re getting better every game. They’re learning, and I think one thing that they bring consistently is their effort,” said Harden on the play of the four rookies. “That’s all that matters. Obviously, Day’Ron is very skilled. He’s got really good hands at finishing the basketball, and then Kess defensively on the wing is active and has been knocking down the three. It’s huge for us. They bring that energy and effort every single night and that’s contagious. That rubs off on each and every individual on the team.”

Of course, the Nets will also miss KD’s leadership in that area as well, adding to Harden’s load. None of that should dismiss what the kids have done on their own. As we noted earlier today, In that grueling stretch of five games in seven days, the rookies excelled for the gassed unit, providing 40.8 points, 21.6 rebounds and a whole lot of highlights.

Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: will Irving be eligible for home games? If he gets vaccinated or New York City changes its mandate, it would be a big help for the Nets once Durant returns and Brooklyn makes a break for the playoffs. Assuming KD returns after the All-Star break, the “Big Three” can play together in only eight of 23 games to close out the season and five of the last 15 unless things change. Not a lot of continuity there.

Of course, the roster could change too. Sean Marks has been uncharacteristically quiet. Other than signing four players to 10-day hardship exceptions, the Nets GM has done nothing: no trades, no signings, no waivers, etc. Admittedly, he has few assets and roster instability due to COVID has hurt as well.

It’s no secret that replacing Durant’s production over the next four to six weeks is going to be a very, very difficult task that can’t be fully accomplished, even by committee. While the resilience of the team has had to reach new heights, the need for foundational effort from top to bottom has reached its highest demand as well.

“Guys got to step up. Guys got to step up. It’s simple,” said Harden. “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.”

The reality is simple: you can’t replace Kevin Wayne Durant but you have to try and James Edward Harden Jr. will be a big part of that effort.