In what might have to be a best-case scenario, the Nets figure to have eight games left in the regular season in which Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving could all play together.
That means there are 26 other games, in which they may or may not have some combination of the Big 3 at their disposal, for the rest of the Nets not to waste
They had none of their three superstars available Wednesday against the Nuggets but still left the game feeling like they had put it to good use despite falling short, 124-118.
“I think [Wednesday] was just an example of being able to take those small wins along the way in terms of us getting a little bit better and putting them in the bank for the end of the season,” veteran guard Patty Mills said after the second half of a back-to-back. “But [Wednesday] felt like everyone was involved. Everyone made an impact, the guys that were out there and played on both ends of the floor.
“It was money in the bank, I think.”
Coach Steve Nash played the only nine healthy bodies he had available on his roster after Harden was a late scratch with hamstring tightness, joining Durant (sprained MCL) and Irving (local COVID-19 mandates) on the shelf. The Nets were also missing centers Day’Ron Sharpe (non-COVID illness) and Nic Claxton (injury management), in addition to Joe Harris (ankle surgery) and Paul Millsap (personal).
The result was a mishmash rotation of players that might not have been overly familiar with each other but played hard in their second game in as many days. They shored up their transition defense, which had cost them a night before in their loss to the Lakers, and without a go-to scorer to defer to offensively, the Nets featured strong ball movement with six players scoring in double digits and 26 assists on 43 field goals.
“You’re just trying to play the right basketball, and I think the flow that we had [Wednesday] was the flow that we need, especially when our guys come back because it’s a team sport and being able to have so many guys be aggressive, it’s hard to try to coach and stop certain players when we’re just reacting and making the right plays each possession,” said DeAndre’ Bembry, who chipped in 14 points on 7 of 11 shooting. “So it’s more so just us getting better still throughout the year.”
Despite feeling like they made important gains within the game Wednesday, the Nets have now lost three straight games and are 2-4 since Durant’s knee injury. They hope to have Harden back for a challenging five-game road trip that begins Saturday against the Warriors, with Irving also available for each leg, as they try to weather the storm without Durant.
The Nets entered Thursday sitting in fourth place in the tight Eastern Conference standings. They won’t have an unlimited runway to find their game once Durant, Harden and Irving are all back, which puts an added importance on the games before then and taking what Mills described as the “small wins,” regardless of which assorted fraction of stars the Nets might have on the court.
“The goal is to continue to move this thing forward,” Nash said. “Win or lose, are we learning more about ourselves, more about each other and refining our details? If we do, when we get bodies back we’ll be in a better place for it. We’ll have learned something about ourselves, and we’ll be able to say that this time was not wasted.”