The Nets insisted this year wasn’t the same as last year, that they’re better able to weather Kevin Durant’s absence.
They’re starting to show it just might be true.
The Nets (29-17) buoyed their confidence with consecutive Kyrie Irving-powered wins at Utah and Golden State, their first since losing Durant to a sprained MCL. They’re expecting more clarity on their star’s status this week, but whatever Durant’s timeline, the Nets’ spirits are higher than they were a week ago.
“Yeah, it means a lot because you get in a position where we’re starting to figure some things out. So that’s evidence to our guys, what it looks like down the stretch,” coach Jacque Vaughn said.
“Guys are starting to find their rhythm a little with [Durant] not being out there,” Nic Claxton said. “It’s different for everybody. He gets a lot of touches, so everybody has to figure out ways how to impact the game offensively and also defensively. We miss him in a lot of different ways out there on the court, but we’re figuring it out.”
Through the Miami game when Durant went down, the Nets had the league’s best field-goal percentage (.512) and were second in 3-point shooting (.392). Both numbers fell apart as soon as they lost Durant. In their first three games without him, the Nets were dead last in scoring (99.3 points per game) and 3-point shooting (.286), and next-to-last in field-goal percentage (.430). Not shockingly, they went 0-3.
What is an offense built around Durant with no Durant?
“First option, second option, third option. It don’t f—ing matter to me,” Irving said.
“It doesn’t matter who has the ball in their hands as long as they’re being aggressive [and] it’s the best shot for our team. Objectively this team sport is to win games, not identify one person to carry everybody every single night. … For me, it’s just a team attitude, team atmosphere and us playing well together and collectively.”
The Nets have played better collectively from the fourth quarter in Phoenix when Vaughn put Irving in the pick-and-roll and surrounded him with shooters. That has limited Ben Simmons, but the result has seen them fourth in shooting (.535) and 3-point shooting (.457) since initiating that tweak, and going 2-1 to pull even with third-place Milwaukee in the East.
“Guys going in and out the lineup, us finding ways to win, that’s just a collective effort. Everybody’s buying in, stepping up when we need and can’t wait to get [Durant] back,” O’Neale said.
“Yeah, guys are starting to figure it out together,” added Vaughn.
“We’ve finished with Nic, with Ben, with Nic and Ben, without one of those guys, ball in Ky’s hands, ball in Seth [Curry]’s hands. So guys are gaining confidence in each other what we want to do especially at the end of games.”
Curry had the ball in his hands late on Sunday, logging 9:10 in the fourth quarter to Simmons’ mere 4:35 and posting a game-best plus-13 in the final period.
Trailing the Warriors 110-98 with 5:42 left, the Nets closed on a 22-6 run. Vaughn closed with Irving, Curry, O’Neale, Joe Harris and Claxton except for 52 seconds when he subbed in Yuta Watanabe at center to have five shooters on the floor.
In less than a minute, with the floor spaced, Curry drove for a layup, then drove again to kicked to Harris for a game-tying 3.
“We’ve had some success when we’ve been able to space the floor, put the ball in Ky’s hands and have shooting around him,” said Vaughn. “Joe hits a huge corner 3-ball because Yuta Watanabe is in the game and spaces the floor and can screen and can run the floor. So capitalizing on our roster, and if the team presents itself and we can have space and attack downhill, we will.”
But Vaughn’s answer to why the Nets have shot well in the clutch over this season was much simpler.
“The coach doesn’t try to mess it up and get in the way, lets the players do what they do,” said Vaughn. “I have special players, let them play with their instincts. Coach don’t screw it up and live with the results.”