Nets can’t afford to waste another year of prime Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is the best basketball player in the history of New York. He is better than Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed on the Knicks’ side of town, and better than Jason Kidd and Julius Erving on the Nets’ side.

When his career is over, Durant will possibly stand among the 10 greatest NBA players of all time. If nothing else, the top 15 seems like a pretty good bet. Durant is 33, so he still has some real time left to climb the ladder of historical figures in the game. He could end up second on the unofficial all-time small forward scoreboard, ahead of Larry Bird and behind LeBron James.

So no, the Nets cannot afford to waste another season of Durant’s prime, not after they wasted one last year. Durant is healthy and Kyrie Irving is healthy, and who knows when or if that will happen again at this time of year.

That’s what makes Game 3 against the Celtics in Brooklyn on Saturday night feel so damn win-or-else urgent.

On the subject of legacy, Durant’s is complicated by his 2016 decision to leave Oklahoma City for the ready-made championship team fielded by Golden State, even though KD was hardly the league’s first titan to align himself with fellow titans, AAU style, and even though the Warriors were hardly the league’s first stacked team.

On the other hand, after he won two rings with the Warriors, Durant’s ladder climb might’ve been compromised by his 2019 decision to trade Stephen Curry for Irving and a new challenge in Brooklyn, where he was guaranteed to have a much tougher road to more titles — after recovering from his ruptured Achilles — than he would’ve had by sticking with the Warriors.

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant
NBAE via Getty Images

In the end, when judging superstars, this much is clear: Rings are the thing. Durant did everything he could last year to win his third of him, after Irving went down with a thick ankle injury and after James Harden was reduced to a one-legged playmaker. In Games 5 and 7 of the Nets’ conference semifinal matchup against the eventual champion Bucks, Durant delivered a combined 97 points, 26 rebounds and 16 assists in 101 out of a possible 101 minutes played. He sank what could have been a game-winning 3-pointer against the Bucks in Game 7 — if it weren’t for what he called “my big-ass foot.”

The big-ass foot that stepped on the 3-point line and turned an epic turnaround jumper into what seemed like the longest 2-pointer ever, and sent Durant into an overtime he was too exhausted to control.

The Nets failed their franchise player last spring, not the other way around, which brings us to Saturday night at Barclays Center, and a first-round series with the Celtics that still seemed winnable despite Boston’s 2-0 lead.

It feels as if the Nets are down 3-0 in the series because of the way the games at TD Garden went down. In the opener, they threw away an otherworldly effort from a fired-up Irving to lose on a buzzer-beating layup. In Game 2, they blew a 17-point lead and a chance to notify the Celtics that this series would end just like last year’s did — with the Nets advancing to the second round.

Coach Steve Nash did next to nothing to help his team get to 1-1. Then when he was staring into the 0-2 abyss, the coach conceded his Nets somehow lost intensity in the second half of a road playoff game they needed to win. Worse yet, when given an obvious platform to campaign against Boston’s mauling of Durant in an effort to influence the officiating over the balance of the series (refs are human too, remember), Nash did no such thing.

“I couldn’t have more faith and trust in Kevin Durant,” Nash said two days later. “Sometimes you go through these little pockets of play. We’re playing a team that’s excellent defensively and a big team. And they do a great job. That doesn’t mean, though, that things can’t change.

Kevin Durant drives to the basket during the Nets' Game 2 loss to the Celtics.
Kevin Durant drives to the basket during the Nets’ Game 2 loss to the Celtics.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“I think Kevin Durant is one of the best players to ever play the game, and he’ll continue to improve as the series goes on.”

Yes, it was hard to believe Durant wouldn’t improve off his numbers in Boston — 13-for-41 from the floor, including an 0-for-10 in the fourth quarter Wednesday night. Though he pointed out that “two or three guys hit me wherever I go,” Durant accepted responsibility for his substandard play by saying, “It’s on me to just finish it and figure it out.”

Only it’s not that simple. Irving can’t have another indifferent game like he had Wednesday night, and he can’t fail again — as the team’s quarterback — to put Durant in favorable positions to succeed. And more than his point guard from him, Nash, a Hall of Famer himself at the point, has to devise a plan that creates space for Durant to be what he needs to be for the Nets to survive and advance: the best player on the floor.

The Nets only needed to win two home games to make this a series, and to apply the kind of pressure on Boston that the Celtics’ defenders applied on them at TD Garden. Falling short of that goal would amount to a colossal failure, and another wasted year of Kevin Durant’s prime that the Nets will never get back.


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