The real way to save Kevin Durant’s legs for the end of the season is to end his night early against lesser opponents.
As evidenced by the Nets’ collapse in their 122-116 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, that’s a lot easier said than done.
The Nets were about to give Durant a half-day. They led by 23 in the second quarter, in large part because Seth Curry’s hot shot against the hometown team and of Kyrie Irving aggressive scoring against Terry Rozier, his Boston Celtics understudy who now plays a key role in Charlotte.
The Nets blew the Hornets out of the water in the first half. The game had to end.
And then they took their foot off the gas. They benched Durant far too long, then squandered those minutes while he watched from the sidelines. That’s the other side of the Durant workload conundrum: Yes, he leads the NBA in minutes; yes, he’s 34 in his 15th NBA season; yes, he’s four seasons removed from a devastating torn Achilles; and yes, the Nets want to make sure he’s healthy and fresh for the playoffs.
But when he’s not playing, the Nets struggle.
The Hornets turned Brooklyn’s 23-point lead into a one-point game until Durant’s comeback midway through the fourth quarter.
“Overall, it was one of those games where we jumped out to the lead,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said after the game. “They’re an NBA team and a well-coached team that’s going to keep fighting back and we relaxed a little bit and kind of paid for it. Good thing we have some pretty good players to execute late game, which we did for the most part. I love that part of her. But we got comfortable and started letting them go where they want, down to the rim and the paint, too many times.”
After scoring 20 in the first three quarters, Durant scored nine more to secure the victory, giving the Nets their eighth win in their last 11 games.
For the first half of the night, the game plan worked. The Nets went deep into their rotation — and took care of business against a non-playoff opponent.
Until they took their foot off the gas.
“I mean, they’re professionals. I know there’s a lot of expectation on us, especially when we’re up, but they’ve got guys who’ve put up numbers in the NBA before on that team, so we’ve got to respect them for that, like,” Durant said. “I know we should have kept the lead, but you still have to respect them as NBA players. But I like our intensity. I like how we came out on the offensive side of the ball and moved the ball controlling pretty much the whole game.”
While the Hornets were without franchise cornerstone LaMelo Ball (ankle) and oft-injured star Gordon Hayward (shoulder), the Nets are coming in with a fully healthy 10-man rotation. Ben Simmons (calf strain) and Yuta Watanabe (hamstring strain) are the only key rotation players to miss Wednesday’s game.
At first, it was too much for the Hornets. Even without Simmons and Watanabe, the Nets have expressed the depth they hope he can carry — both in the games Durant sits out and the minutes he watches from the bench.
Durant hurt himself early. On one possession, he went over Charlotte’s Kelly Oubre Jr. and drove into the board with his right hand before finishing with an emphatic two-handed thing.
And in other possessions, he did nothing. His teammates picked up where he left off.
Three Nets scored 20 or more, with Curry coming off the bench to hang 20 points on his hometown team. Irving scored 33 points. Even though all five Hornets starters scored in double figures, Charlotte came close to nothing from its bench. Curry single-handedly outplayed the Hornets’ reserves.
Not to mention the Hornets’ atrocious defense let the Nets players go to the rim on a regular basis.
Still, the Nets need to find ways to play first-half basketball in the second half. It’s the difference between Durant playing an average of 37 minutes a game and playing 25 minutes.
These minutes will accrue at the end of the season. When the playoffs come around, he’ll be on the court at least 40 minutes a night.
“Sizable lead, we took our foot off the accelerator, but you have to give them credit,” Irving said. “They definitely came out, hit us in the mouth in the second half. They played with a lot of confidence. And for us, it wasn’t just about the Charlotte Hornets. It’s about us establishing our defensive principles and again, we had a chance to do that tonight and we gave up the lead. On nights like this, it feels great when you win, but the way we won, we definitely want to improve on that.”