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Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were back and healthy.
And they both looked like themselves.
The rest was gravy.
Sure, it was a tougher-than-it-should-have-been 119-114 preseason nailbiter on Sunday against Washington at an empty Barclays Center that won’t count in the standings. And yes, it was against a threadbare Wizards team that didn’t have either Bradley Beal or newly-acquired Russell Westbrook.
And no, Nets fans won’t care. Nor should they.
The blown 26-point lead wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was that 552 days after Durant ruptured his right Achilles tendon playing for Golden State in the 2019 NBA Finals, he was back on an NBA court making his debut for the Nets.
Durant had 15 points, three rebounds, three assists and even added two blocks in 23:43. And Irving — who hadn’t played since February due to shoulder surgery — had a team-high 18 points and four assists on 7-of-9 shooting in 17:08.
Now rookie coach Steve Nash has to figure out rotations, and patch together a defense. Do that, and he has a contender — if they can keep Durant and Irving fit.
“We’re a team that’d like to contend for a championship. And the way to do that is to be healthy at the end of the year. So in order to physically be able to sustain the rigors of the season, that became the priority. This is a work in progress,” said Steve Nash, who made his debut as coach.
“We haven’t implemented the majority of what we’re going to implement. There’s time for that. … First thing’s first is to get off to a healthy and competitive start, rather than overloading them with the tactical elements of the game that takes away from their physical preparation [and] puts us at more risk of injury. That’s how we decided to approach this.”
Durant looked healthy, passing the eye test. He scored the Nets’ first bucket of the preseason — and his first in a Brooklyn uniform — on a baseline jam off a kick-out from Spencer Dinwiddie. He found DeAndre Jordan for a dunk on the next play.
The Nets ran out to a 38-20 cushion after the first quarter on white-hot 13-of-17 shooting, including a missed heave at the buzzer. Durant and Irving were each plus-12, with a combined 23 points on 8-of-9 from the floor.
And while Durant cooled off — following an 11-point, 3-for-3 opening quarter with a four-point, 2-for-5 second — he looked back mentally as well, with no fear.
Not only did he drive with no hesitation, initiating contact with the likes of Issac Bonga, but he gave up his body to take a charge on Rui Hachimura with 3:23 left in the half. If there had been fans in Barclays Center, the collective gasps would’ve surely been audible — and unnecessary. Durant popped back up.
Dinwiddie hit Taurean Prince for a 3-pointer and 61-35 cushion with 4:26 in the half. The importance of keeping Durant healthy was underscored by the fact they blew that lead with him sitting in the second half.
The Nets were outscored 34-22 in the third quarter. They saw the lead cut to six on back-to-back 3s by Hachimura and rookie Deni Avdija. It got within 70-65 on a Hachimura and-one with 8:56 left in the third, showing the defensive frailties that will concern Nash and be a point of emphasis as this team gets built.
Hachimura’s 3-pointer cut the lead to 79-75 with just over five minutes in the third, and Cassius Winston erased it altogether with a pull up that knotted it at 79-all.
The fourth was tooth and nail, with Durant and Irving sitting and on a minutes limit.
Down 112-111 with three minutes left, the Nets went ahead on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s free throws. A Rodions Kurucs layup pushed it to three with 2 ½ to play, and Chris Chiozza’s 3-pointer in the final half-minute iced it at 118-114.
“We’d like to get up to 20 or so if we can,” Nash said of Durant and Irving’s minutes. “But that’s easy to say before the game starts. But we’ll see how it goes. But with only two exhibition games, it’d be ideal to get them north of 20 minutes or up to 20 minutes if we can. So we’ll see how it goes.
“You don’t want to obviously overexpose them in this first scenario, so we have to play it by ear. But that’d be ideal to get 20 or 20-something minutes in their legs before the next exhibition game, and then obviously one more dress rehearsal hopefully will allow them to play somewhat more towards a normal amount of minutes and intensity in that first game against the Warriors.”
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