Without Kyrie Irving, Nets’ Kevin Durant faces big task

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Five summers ago, Kevin Durant made a very smart call. Actually, he made two:

1. He decided to host all of his free-agent suitors in the Hamptons.

2. He decided to sign with the Warriors.

Durant was mercilessly ripped for that second choice (kind of hard to quibble with that first one), despite the fact it made perfect sense to a player who had designs on becoming an all-time great. Fair or not, the legends are ultimately graded by chroniclers and historians on the number of championships they win. Durant picked the roster that gave him the best shot at multiple trophies, and he ended up with two.

The fact that he was shredded for joining the same Warriors team that had just eliminated his Thunder, and that they had already won big without him, might have fueled his desire to start anew and to try to win an NBA title for a franchise that had never claimed one. Now, after being accused of having too much help, Durant might have to save his team’s championship pursuit without any help at all.

Maybe Kyrie Irving will play in Game 5 after spraining his ankle in a 107-96 loss to the Bucks that made this Eastern Conference semifinal a 2-2 proposition. Maybe even James Harden will suit up at Barclays Center on Tuesday night after his reinjured right hamstring has cost him this entire series, minus 43 seconds.

But the Nets could go 0-for-2 on the injury front, just like they went 0-for-2 in Milwaukee, leaving them in a dire position against an opponent that now believes it can advance to the conference final. The Bucks were dead after two games in Brooklyn — exposed, embarrassed, humiliated, you name it. It’s amazing how quickly things can change in sports, as Novak Djokovic reminded everyone in Paris earlier in the day, winning the French Open title after dropping the first two sets.

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is guarded by P.J. Tucker during the Nets’ loss in Game 4 on Sunday.

All of a sudden, the Nets are the ones who might be soon lining up for tennis and golf lessons. “It’s never going to be easy,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “It’s the playoffs.” You know, the playoffs the Nets are supposed to win.

Durant was asked after Game 1 if his team had enough to win this series if Harden didn’t reappear in it. He responded that he wasn’t thinking like that. It would have felt cruel to ask Durant after Game 4 if his team had enough to win this series if Harden and Irving didn’t reappear in it.

On cue, fire alarms went off inside Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum after the game, clearing everyone out of the building. The Nets provided only Jeff Green to reporters, via Zoom, after the team was allowed back inside. Durant was not made available to field questions about his team’s ultra-vulnerable state.

He finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds Sunday, an honest day’s work by any measure. But he made only nine of 25 shots, and was 20-for-53 in these two games in Milwaukee. Durant also wore the body language of frustration in Game 4 as it became clear that his outmanned team wasn’t going to mount a miracle comeback.

“It’s always deflating when one of our guys go down,” Green said.

After Harden was the guy who went down in Game 1, Nash said he was “heartbroken for him.” Durant added, “I hate that it had to happen to him right now.”

After Irving was the guy who went down in Game 4, Nash said he had no idea what treatment would do for his status before Tuesday night. Green added, “Injuries suck.”

Irving made a basket in the lane when Giannis Antetokounmpo made contact with his leg, and when Irving’s right foot landed on Antetokounmpo’s shoe, it caused the ankle sprain that had millions of recreational players who had rolled over their own ankles wincing at, and retreating from, the replays.

Irving hobbled slowly down the tunnel, and Harden, wearing a Nipsey Hussle T-shirt on the sideline, wasn’t available to sub in. Durant scored 16 in the third quarter in a bid to make a game of it, but in the closing minutes, after Nash had cleared his bench, Milwaukee fans started chanting, “Bucks in six.”

Nash said that Harden is “getting close” to returning, but that he won’t be rushed back to cover for the potential absence of Irving. Either way, Durant will have to shoulder an immense burden in Game 5 and beyond. The Big 3 could down to the Big 1. The superstar once mocked for having an all-star supporting cast might have to go it alone this time.

If the basketball gods keep score, maybe this is how it was meant to be.

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