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Who steps up for Kevin Durant?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets (27-13) will be without superstar forward Kevin Durant (isolated MCL sprain) for at least two weeks, roughly six games. On the promising side, Durant’s injury - the same injury that cost him 21 games last season - is not deemed to keep him out that long this time around.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Lewis, there’s optimism that this injury is a less severe injury, unlikely to sideline him for more than a month. Regardless, Durant is slated to be re-evaluated in two weeks. The question remains how well can Brooklyn survive without their 29.7 point-per-game scorer?

In the two weeks starting Monday, the Nets play four of their six games against playoff-contending teams: Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, and the Golden State Warriors. Despite some tough competition ahead, Brooklyn is in a much better place now than when the team had to cope with Durant’s sprained MCL (on the other foot) last season.

The biggest difference between the current scenario and last season’s woeful stretch is that superstar guard Kyrie Irving is available every. Irving is averaging 26.0 points on nearly 50.0% shooting from the field and nearly 37%.

While the seven-time NBA All-Star is fully available now, he was limited to playing only on the road because of the city’s vaccination mandate last season, which certainly hindered the team.

On a smaller, yet more impactful scale, Brooklyn is more comfortable with their lineups this season. The Nets, who struggled to forge chemistry and cohesion in Durant’s 21-game injury absence last year, have plenty of firepower and stability on the roster, outside of their top scorers, to nurse this recent loss.

The efficiency on both ends of the floor skyrocketed in Brooklyn’s scorching-hot month of December and has carried into the new year. Several players have stepped up when needed most and will be asked to do more. On the offensive end, Vaughn has shown on various occasions he has the ability to spread out scoring. And there isn’t a player more in line for a role bump than veteran wing T.J. Warren.

Although Jacque Vaughn recently stated he doesn’t see Warren playing 35+ minutes per game, Warren’s minutes (19.9) will certainly increase. The wing, who has played 16 games since returning from his near two-year injury absence, has played well while he continues to get his legs under him. His scoring punch, with the ability to create his own shots, will take the next step in Durant’s absence. And he can score. In his last full regular season, Warren averaged 19.8 points a game and despite his limited minutes is averaging 9.9 points this season.

Also expect the Nets to push Ben Simmons to push a more aggressive brand on offense. Before this season, he averaged 16.9 points a game on 12.3 shots. In Brooklyn, so far, he’s putting up 10.2 points on 7.9 shots. He has deferred to KD and Kyrie. That may not be a luxury now. Not to mention, the Nets need consistency from Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Royce O’Neale.

All factors considered, it’s unlikely Brooklyn will go down that same dark road this time around during an Durant absence: 5-16 in his 21-game injury absence, which included an 11-game losing streak. Riding a hot stretch, winning 18 of their last 20 games, the Nets are only a game behind the Eastern Conference top-seeded Celtics. On the lower rung of the ladder, the Milwaukee Bucks trail Brooklyn by a game for the second seed.

As Kyrie Irving post-game Sunday...

“Our strategy [changes]. Its pretty clear that KD & me are predominantly most of the offense. But we have incredible shooters & talented players around us; now it shapes into all-around offense & guys being ready,” said Irving.

Or as Joe Harris noted ...

“With [Durant] we know what we’re up against with him not being in lineup. We can say it every single day, but we don’t have time for any excuses. We’ve just got to keep moving forward and stay mature about it, like I said.