Just when the Nets thought they had a chance to build some consistency with their full Big 3 intact, Kevin Durant entered the MRI tube.
And while the Nets star may have avoided the worst, it doesn’t sound as if he will be playing again anytime soon.
Durant underwent an MRI exam on Sunday morning that revealed a sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee, the team said. The Nets declined to provide a timetable for Durant’s absence, but said he would “return to full strength following a period of rehabilitation.”
The Nets did not divulge the severity of Durant’s MCL sprain, but there is optimism his rehab and return could take 4-to-6 weeks, ESPN reported — at best putting him in play to return after the All-Star break late next month.
“Guys got to step up, it’s simple,” James Harden said Saturday night, before the Nets knew how long Durant would be out. “Obviously we know how great of a player KD is and what he brings to the table each and every night consistently. Some guys got to step up and fill that role and just continue to compete our butts off.”
Durant was injured midway through the second quarter of Saturday’s blowout win over the Pelicans, when Bruce Brown fell awkwardly into his knee, appearing to hyperextend it. He hobbled around on the court momentarily before taking himself out of the game and heading straight to the locker room.
The 33-year-old Durant — who missed nearly two months last season with a hamstring strain — was in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, often putting the Nets on his back. He leads the league with 29.3 points per game to go with 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists while handling a heavy workload. His 36.5 minutes per game are the fifth most in the league — he was second in the NBA (at 37.2) before playing only 12 minutes Saturday night because of the injury.
While Durant avoided a major injury — or anything with his ACL — his absence comes at an inopportune time for the Nets. On Monday they begin a four-game road trip and play nine of their next 11 games away from Barclays Center. The stretch was going to give their Big 3 of Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving the chance to establish some consistency for the first time this season, now that the Nets are allowing the unvaccinated Irving is to play road games.
Instead, it looks like Harden and Irving will be leading the way at least for the time being, leaving the Nets feeling snakebitten by their latest setback.
“Yeah, I mean tonight what happened to [Durant] and Kai being able to play road games only, and Joe [Harris], Nic [Claxton], LaMarcus [Aldridge all out with injuries],” Harden said. “But we’ve been a resilient group all year since I’ve been here so we just got to keep pushing.”
The Nets have played just two games this season with their full Big 3 and only 16 overall (playoffs included) out of a possible 113 games since Harden made his team debut a year ago Sunday. Durant, Harden and Irving each dealt with injuries last season, and though they had stayed healthy this season before Durant’s MCL sprain, they were missing Irving because of New York City’s COVID-19 mandates until the Nets decided last month to allow him to be a part-time player.
Despite Irving’s absence, the Nets are in second place in the Eastern Conference at 27-15. Now they will have to hold down the fort while Durant is out, hoping that Irving’s increased availability can help pick up the slack as he continues to adapt physically to being a part-time player.
“There was a lot of bad luck so to speak last year, just the amount of games that we were able to play whole,” coach Steve Nash said before Durant’s injury. “We’ve had a lot more thrown at us this year, but we’re used to it and I think these opportunities to overcome afford you a lot more in the end.”