Kevin Durant is out with another MCL sprain, but it’s a different story for the Nets this season

NEW YORK — Kevin Durant is sidelined with a sprained MCL, just like he was last January, but it’s not exactly a same-story, different-year situation. This time, on the night that Durant got hurt, the Brooklyn Nets had a clean injury report. Last time, there were two rookies in the starting lineup and five players on the injury report, including Kyrie Irving, who was ineligible to play at Barclays Center because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Last time, Brooklyn lost 16 of 21 games after Durant’s injury. Before and after the James Harden-Ben Simmons blockbuster trade, which happened during that stretch, the coaching staff had to cobble together a new rotation virtually every game. This time, the Nets are in a much less precarious position. The same guys who have been playing most of the minutes will continue to play most of the minutes, Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn said after practice Wednesday. The ones on the fringe of the rotation might get opportunities, but that will remain situational.

“The train will keep moving,” Vaughn said.

Without Durant, the Nets want to cut down their fouls, limit their turnovers and improve their rebounding. “All the things that increase or decrease your margins, we just gotta be better at,” Vaughn said. “These were already points of emphasis, but they’re more important because Kevin can make a shot for us and cover up some of our sins.”

There will be “no huge changes, philosophically, of how we’re going to approach this thing,” Vaughn said. Brooklyn will likely play “a little faster, probably [take] a few more 3s to make up for Kevin’s midrange shots.” Durant is averaging 29.7 points and has a 31.1 percent usage rate, so, naturally, there will be more touches going around.

“The best player in the world, he’s out, but guys gotta step up,” Nets big man Nic Claxton said. “We’ve been in this position before.”

Irving will become the Nets’ No. 1 scoring option. Simmons, whose usage rate has dropped to 14.2 percent this season, should naturally take on more of the playmaking load. Vaughn said that Simmons’ next step is “to play every possession with strength,” adding that the pace and easy shots he creates are necessities now.

Vaughn pointed to last Friday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans as an example. Early in the game, Simmons picked up CJ McCollum full court and attacked the basket multiple times.

“Now, can you do it at the 18-minute mark, the 24-minute mark, the 40-minute mark?” Vaughn said. “But that’s the progression that we’re at, where it’s still the same thing and you’re seeing it, but can you consistently see it? Because we definitely need that with Kevin being out.”

Vaughn declined to say who would take Durant’s place in the starting lineup. The cleanest fit, in terms of offensive skill set, would be TJ Warren, who has shot 52 percent from midrange, per Cleaning The Glass. Warren essentially missed two seasons before making his comeback in early December, though. He has averaged 19.9 minutes in 16 games and has only exceeded 27 minutes once. Vaughn said that the Nets’ priority is to keep Warren healthy for the rest of the season, so he will not be playing 40 minutes. It is unclear, however, if they think that 30 to 35 is too much.

Superstars like Durant make everything simpler. Every time he comes off a pindown, runs a pick-and-roll or catches the ball in the post, he presents a problem for the defense. When a halfcourt possession isn’t going anywhere, he can create a shot for himself or draw a second defender on his own. He is also a legitimate All-Defense candidate, and the Nets can’t simply plug in another player and duplicate his defensive help around the rim, his length and his switchability. The hope is that, collectively, they have enough playmaking, shooting, size and versatility to stay afloat (and that Durant won’t be out for too long).

Royce O’Neale has been a crucial part of Brooklyn’s success this season, particularly because Joe Harris is still finding his footing. Claxton might make an All-NBA team, and he has made strides as a finisher. Yuta Watanabe and Warren might have been the two best bargain signings any team made last summer. The pieces fit so well that the Nets have won 18 of their last 20 games, and only the Boston Celtics have a better record in the NBA this season. Claxton said that they are “definitely” better equipped to handle Durant’s absence than they were last season, because of “our spirit, our energy, our vibes, the way that we’ve been defending.”

A similarly optimistic Vaughn pointed to Brooklyn’s dramatic victory on Sunday, in which Durant left the game early and trailed by nine points in the fourth quarter, as evidence of the team’s resolve. “No excuses, that’s the biggest thing for this group,” Vaughn said. He then started to make a comment about last year’s team, then stopped mid-sentence. “I’ll just say no excuses, I’m not giving this group a chance to make excuses.”

Can the Simmons-Claxton lineups work without Durant in the picture? Can the Nets get enough stops without them? If Warren is starting, who can provide a scoring punch on the second unit? Will they need to dial up Seth Curry’s minutes to find more offense? Will they sacrifice size and versatility to play Curry and Irving together? Brooklyn has to answer these questions in the next few weeks, starting with a home game against Boston on Thursday.

That is not an ideal opponent in this situation, but hey, it could be worse. Last season, when Brooklyn hosted the Celtics during Durant’s absence, Harden was still technically on the roster but took his seat on the bench after tipoff and would fly to Houston the next day while the rest of the team traveled to Washington. Irving was not allowed to be in the arena. The Nets, who came in on an eight-game losing streak, started Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kessler Edwards and Blake Griffin, and they brought Jevon Carter, David Duke Jr., Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and James Johnson off the bench. Boston won 126-91.

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