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For Nets, time is running out ... and so are backcourt options

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Time is of the essence.

No more delays, no more excuses. If they don’t win this week, they will face the second worst fate a contender can face. No, they won’t miss the post-season. They are in the play-in but they could fall into the 9/10 play-in spot requiring them to win two games just to get the eighth seed then face whoever is the top seed.

The details as of now are daunting. The Nets are in the 10th seed, tied with the Hornets but Charlotte holds the tiebreaker after the Nets loss to them in Brooklyn a week ago. They’re a game behind the Hawks after the Nets loss to them on Saturday and two-and-a-half (two games in the loss column) behind the Cavs who hold the seventh seed.

Indeed, they’ve lost three of their last four, four of their last six. Injuries — and even COVID — have interfered with their plans to get to sixth as have inconvenient shooting slumps by two key players, Kyrie Irving and Patty Mills.

They do have two days of rest before taking on the Rockets who they play Tuesday. Then, it’s the Knicks at the Garden on Wednesday and the final two games, at home vs. the Cavaliers on Friday and the Pacers on Sunday afternoon. The play-in tournament begins a week from Tuesday. Who knows where at this point.

Pundits believe that of all the Easts contenders, the Nets have the easiest schedule. Only Cleveland is bound for post-season. The Rockets are tanking in hopes of getting the overall No. 1, the Knicks are expected to rest Julius Randle, maybe other players, while giving their youth a chance, and the Pacers are simply hurting.

Irving is saying what everyone would expect him and his teammates to say about how things should proceed,

“Go home, and — this is just a metaphor — you go home, you get your bulletproof vest, you get your handgun, you get your rocket launcher, you get your AK, you get everything. You load up all the ammo,” Irving said post-game Saturday. “It’s just a metaphor, people. But you go home and get ready for war.

“And you don’t just live with the results, but you go out there with a mental focus and a no-fear attitude and we really play for each other. That’s what it comes down to. We don’t have any time to waste. … For us, it’s not ideal, the season we’ve had. So now, down the stretch, we’ve got to figure it out. … But now, it’s just finishing the basketball games in regulation the way we feel we need to and not being careless.”

The problem is that Irving is having some tough times of his own. His numbers since Mayor Eric Adams changed the private sector mandate permitting him to play full time might look good if your name wasn’t Kyrie Irving. But his name is Kyrie Irving and the stats are substandard for him, perhaps a function of his change of status, going from playing a game every two or three nights to being ready to put up big minutes every night.

“Yeah it could be. I mean, I won’t rule it out,” Irving said of the change. “But I’m not here to make any excuses for why it’s not going well for me on the offensive end. I think what I can control is just really my effort on the defensive end, and being there for my teammates and being there for my ballclub.”

In four games since NYC changed the mandate, making Kyrie Irving eligible for full-time play, the Nets superstar is averaging 21.4 points and 6.4 assists. His shooting splits are 36/38/93. He’s not getting to the line as much either, not at all on Saturday in fact. And he’s averaging 40 minutes per. Not ideal with so many guards down and out.

At this point, the backcourt situation is not good, as Steve Nash laid out Monday morning. Goran Dragic is in the league’s health and safety protocols after suffering symptoms of COVID-19. He did not travel back to Brooklyn after Saturday’s game, remaining in Atlanta Seth Curry is increasingly troubled by his left ankle soreness, having pulled himself Saturday night after giving it a shot in warm-ups Saturday. Nash said the team may sit Curry for the last four games, a big loss.

Then, there’s Mills who had his worst game of the season vs. Atlanta, going 0-of-7, including 0-of-5 from deep. It appears that all those minutes he played early on with Irving and Joe Harris out have taken a toll on the 33-year-old who’s been playing almost non-stop since the Tokyo Olympics.

Finally, Adrian Wojnarowski put the kabosh on speculation that Ben Simmons will play in the regular season ... or even the play-in, suggesting that IF things with his back improve, he might make the playoffs which begin in a 12 days.

“Brooklyn’s going to have to get into the playoffs before there can be any real conversation about Simmons ramping up to return and play for the first time in 11 months,” Woj said Sunday on Sports Center.

If you needed any further confirmation, Nash provided it Monday. Simmons is indeed out for the regular season and play-in. Nash told reports that Simmons was able to do a little more in practice — working with resistance bands, and getting up some shots — but remains a long ways away from playing in a game.

How long? On Monday afternoon, Ramona Shelburne said a Nets run would have to be long for Simmons to get on the court.

“I checked in with someone very close to Simmons today and asked, ‘would you really bring him back into the playoffs after having played for 10 months with all that pressure and everything on the line, the answer was like yeah.”

Following up, Richard Jefferson asked Shelburne what she believes is the likelihood that Simmons plays at all this year. “10 percent,” she responded. “Let’s be real.”

“It’s still possible. If they make a deep playoff run, it’s still possible,” she added. “The issue here is that he has to ramp up.”

Meanwhile, with Dragic in health and safety protocols, the Nets could use the hardship exception again and bring in a 10-day to help out, but with only four games left, who could they find?

The Nets, of course, still have Kevin Durant who showed again Saturday why he’s the best player on the planet, scoring a career-high 55 points in the loss. He made it known that he’s not pleased despite his historic performance.

“Just mad at the loss. Glad I shot the ball well. Made eight 3s, career high, you know. I wish we’d have came out with the W. Just by doing the little stuff — my points are going to come; my shots are going to come, too — but the little stuff we gotta do. We gotta be on the same page.”

Specifically, he spoke about the Nets poor defense, their lack of focus on that end of the court.

“It’s just undisciplined. And we do that a lot,” said Durant, speaking about his team being foul-prone. “That’s just bad basketball. To give them points like that after playing good defense and then boom, reach. We’ve just got to be better in that area.”

But he is Kevin Durant and he will continue to play hard, play with confidence until it’s over whenever that is.

“I can’t come here and act like [I’m] losing confidence,” Durant said. “We lost some games. We’re going to keep playing until it’s over.”

On Monday, he dismissed a reporter’s question about who he’d prefer to play in the play-in.

“I don’t care who we play, I don’t care that we’re in the play-in. Let’s just tip the ball up, you know? See what happens. That’s all you can control. It’s too stressful thinking about, or trying to dodge a team...let’s just play the game,” he said.

“You want to be a champion? Every second that you step on the floor matters. Being a champion is in the habits and the work ethic, the care that you have for the game.”

Durant also said he believes that his injury which cost the Nets six weeks of his talent is the big reason why the team is in the predicament it finds itself.

For Nash, subject of fans’ slings and arrows — some fair, some not so fair, there’s always hope until there isn’t.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year,” Nash said. “We have to regroup, take [Sunday] off and come back ready to keep rebuilding. We’ve got four big games left and we’ve been playing good basketball lately. We’re unlucky not to win a few more of these on this stretch. … Clear our minds, recover, and get back at it.”

Point is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities left.