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Playing for a chip ... with one on their shoulders

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo! Sports has been talking with Kevin Durant lately and in that conversation, the Nets superstar talks about how things are going (very well) and how his Nets (and they are his Nets) have burdens other teams don’t, including how they are unliked, under appreciated and generally counted out when talk turns to titles.

“We understand what we’re doing on both ends. It’s that simple,” Durant said when asked by Goodwill what’s working. “We know what kind of defense we want to play, what kind of offense we want to run. And that just makes everybody more comfortable.

“I look at it simple: We get up every day, we’re healthy for the most part. And we grind. So whatever comes from that, we accept. We’re putting the right foot forward to go out there and be a team. We’re not where [we] want to be, but I like the direction we’re in.”

Indeed, the Nets are, as Goodwill put it, “creeping up” on the East ... and on basketball fans. After a bizarre off-season, driven primarily by Durant’s trade request and Kyrie Irving’s uncertain status with the team, the team’s fans were treated to a slow start, doubts about key players like Ben Simmons and Joe Harris, then the dumping of Steve Nash and an aborted, and embarrassing pursuit of Ime Udoka, all of it wrapped around the latest Irving controversy, his publicizing of an anti-semitic video and a subsequent suspension. “Drama” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Now, as KD admits, the Nets are unliked. Who’s fault is that?

“Is ‘embellish’ the right word? Y’all do that because it’s New York City,” Durant said, laying the blame on the city that never sleeps nor accepts a lot of excuses either, to be fair. “Just the media in general in New York City feed the fans and the fans like negative s***. They’re used to teams not playing well over the years so they just accept the drama.

“So when drama comes around it’s a normal feeling. That’s New York culture over the last 50 years in sports. I feel like [NBA] culture is starting to turn that way now, but it’s always been that way in New York.”

Whatever the reason — and every Nets fan knows them all whether they live in Bed-Stuy or Havana, Cuba — Durant thinks he and his guys are not liked, not appreciated.

“People don’t like us,” Durant told Goodwill, reiterating a theme he’s visited more than once this season. “No, they don’t [like me]. They don’t like us as a group.”

The lack of likeability is reflected in the way the Nets’ rise hasn’t been appreciated in recent weeks, he told Goodwill, as they’ve flourished under Jacque Vaughn, the self-described “write-in candidate” who won the head coaching job. They’ve won 17 of the 24 games Vaughn has coached, seven straight, 11 of the last 12. Yes, they still don’t have a winning record against teams with a .500 plus record and a lot of the wins have been against undermanned teams, but that’s good luck, not a stain. And there are only two columns in the standings and the Nets are racking up ones in the left-hand column.

“I don’t see that standard for other teams,” Durant said. “I don’t see the standard for guys who actually didn’t have the circumstances we had: injuries, $50 million in salary that wasn’t playing last year.

“We don’t get that grace. But we got to play through everything. With other teams, they get some of that grace, but I understand we haven’t earned it yet. We gotta work for that.”

Gotta jump through a “Hula Hoop of fire!”

“When Ky and Ben didn’t play, we beat teams by [nearly] 40 points. Any other team, it’s, ‘Hold on, what they doing over there?’ “They take us for granted, me and Kai especially. We gotta jump through a Hula-Hoop of fire to be impressed.”

The center of the Nets issues in reality is not Kevin Wayne Durant. He is en fuego. When reporters ask Vaughn and his teammates about whether at age 34 he’s getting better, that is saying something! For it to be a legitimate question says even more. The issue almost ever since the Clean Sweep has been Irving. Durant recognizes that, but as he has throughout the last three years tried to put things in perspective about his friend.

“Obviously, I wasn’t fond of him not being in the lineup last year,” Durant admitted, as he has in the past.

Now, though, he tells Goodwill that Irving is “locked in” and indeed he has been. In fact, he described Irving’s play as “God-like”

“On the floor, it’s remarkable, God-like Hall-of-Fame level. You see how he scores, how he makes plays,” Durant said. “Just the fact his options, and his personal life, how he feels about s***, that’s what people have a [problem] with. But now that he’s playing and he’s here consistently, that hasn’t been a conversation surrounding anything.”

Goodwill gently reminds readers that while KD does play in the media bubble that is New York, other teams and other players have had issues of late as well, the Celtics with Udoka’s suspension, the Suns with Robert Sarver’s treatment of women ... and just about everyone in Phoenix. etc. He also points out that the tone of his conversation with KD was not whiny nor complaining, but rather matter-of-fact.

Can they win a chip while carrying one on their shoulder? Of course. Sports is filled with teams who got past worse. In fact, they’ve use that internal combustion to drive things. The 1978 New York Yankees saw their manager and best player almost come to blows in the dugout on national TV, go down 14 games to the Red Sox in late July, have three managers in a week, then come back and not just win it all, but win it in dramatic, yes, New York fashion.

And within the bounds of that 94’ by 50’ court, the Nets, Durant believes, are ready, willing and able to take on all comers.

“When we step on the floor, all of the narratives and noise around us, we can’t control,” Durant told Goodwill. “When we walk into the facility, I don’t feel like it’s a burden on us. I didn’t feel the [Irving] s*** after a while because we’re locked in, trying to get better.”

We shall see.