Kevin Durant leads Nets past Magic, but Ben Simmons’ knee problems return

Kevin Durant leads Nets past Magic, but Ben Simmons’ knee problems return

NEW YORK — After the Nets’ loss in Indianapolis on Saturday, Kyrie Irving didn’t mince words when asked about the team’s upcoming seven-game homestand.

“I think this is important for our season,” Irving said.

Two games in and the Nets have taken care of the matter, albeit with some trepidation. The team’s 109-102 win over Orlando secured a back-to-back sweep after a Sunday win over the Blazers, pushing the Nets’ record back to .500 at 11-11. The Nets haven’t been .500 since the second game of the season.

Both games were closer than they should have been, as the Blazers were without Damian Lillard and the Magic were missing Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter Jr. as the stakes fluctuated at times.

Kevin Durant is still as good as ever. He scored a season-high 45 points on 19-for-24 shooting, making him and Irving the only players in the last 15 seasons to score 45 points with five assists and as many rebounds on 75 percent shooting. Irving’s came on January 31, 2020, when he scored 54 points against the Bulls on 83 percent shooting while mourning the death of Kobe Bryant.

The Mamba would be proud of Durant on Monday. Durant collected 19 points in the third quarter on 8-of-9 shooting, putting on a master class in scoring, despite Orlando’s length, which featured 7-foot-2 Bol Bol and top draft pick Paolo Banchero, who both had 24 points. Durant also helped with the playmaking work and finished with a match-high five assists.

“I felt like I had to use a lot of my legs and follow up on a lot of shots tonight,” Durant said, because my fundamentals had to be in place with this team because they can disrupt you any action you try. to try. They got a lot of hands on the ball when they tried to trap me and I tried to go over the top to other teams, that pass comes through.

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“But the long athletic team over there, it’s tough to get free looks. So I just tried to be fundamentally sound and get to my spots and knock them in.”

But nothing in NetsWorld is easy as the team suffered its latest setback with Ben Simmons leaving in the second quarter due to left knee soreness.

In his postgame press conference, Jacque Vaughn said Simmons asked out of the game after feeling discomfort; he doesn’t expect Simmons to get imaging. Simmons is day-to-day as the Nets see how his knee responds to treatment. Simmons missed four games earlier this season due to soreness in his left knee and had to undergo plasma treatment in addition to having it drained several times. The injury left the Nets frustrated with Simmons’ lack of availability and led to a closed-door meeting between himself and general manager Sean Marks to discuss his handling of it. To his credit, Simmons responded well after his return, putting together his best stretch as a net only to go down on Monday.

Simmons’ injury, assuming it costs him a few games, puts more of an offensive burden on Durant and Irving, who already had a full workload. They scored 21 of Brooklyn’s 23 points in the first quarter against the Magic as their teammates combined to shoot 1-for-9 from the field. The Nets were able to pull it off, ending up with productive nights out of Nic Claxton (17 points and 13 rebounds) and Joe Harris (a season-high 17 points), but they came with their own obstacles as well.

Harris continues to struggle from 3. He is shooting just 32 percent from deep on the season and went 2-for-8 from behind the arc on Monday after going 1-for-6 from there against the Blazers. Given the opportunity to hit a 3 with 1:08 left Monday, Harris’ shot was off. The Magic quickly turned it over on a 3 from Bol to make it a four-point game with 52 seconds left.

In his last five games, Harris shot just 16 percent from 3. He scored most of his points against Orlando by driving to the basket and his 36 minutes were a season high. He cracked the closing lineup for the first time and Vaughn praised his feel for the game despite the struggles afterward. But in his pregame press conference, Vaughn didn’t hold back on Harris’ importance or his optimism about the Virginia product coming around.

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“The shots he’s taken have all been good shots,” Vaughn said. “That’s the big thing. I think everyone in this organization has a tremendous amount of respect and love for Joe Harris. At least I do. Totally believe in him. He is an incredible person, teammate and shooter. And that ball is going to go in. It’s just a matter of time really. Whether we reduce some of his minutes just to take some of the mental and physical strain off him — we’ve had other guys that have been good — but we need Joe Harris.

“We need him to relieve some of Royce O’Neale’s minutes. We need him to help us back. We need him to play more than (the) 12 minutes he did the other day. He is just too good a person. Too good of a basketball player not to get there.”

Claxton’s and Simmons’ free throw shooting remains a liability. As a team, the Nets are 11th in the NBA from the charity stripe at 80.1 percent. But Claxton (46 percent) and Simmons (55 percent) are late-game candidates for hacking because of their woes there, and despite Claxton shooting 69 percent in his last five games, Vaughn said it’s early to believe that he has turned.

“I definitely think he feels more comfortable in those situations,” Vaughn said. “Portland tried to hack him at the end of the last game and he felt more comfortable going into the line. If there is something positive, I think it is the positive.”

Orlando hacked Claxton late in the fourth and he split a pair. But despite his free-throw woes, the 23-year-old continues to put together his best season as a pro. Claxton had his eighth double-double on Monday, which is a team high and marks a career high for him. He leads the league in field goal percentage (73.1) and ranks fourth in blocks per game with 2.1. His 13 rebounds helped the Nets win on the boards 42-35 despite the Magic’s superior length. Claxton sealed the win with a fastbreak dunk where he hung onto the rim, pounded the floor and gestured to the crowd.

The Nets have three winnable games left on this home stretch, starting with the Wizards on Wednesday in addition to Atlanta and Charlotte next weekend, but will have benchmark games against the Raptors (Friday) and Celtics (Sunday). In April, the Celtics swept the Nets out of the first round of the playoffs en route to the NBA Finals. The Nets could get a boost on Friday as TJ Warren is expected to make his season debut, but likely with limited minutes. Should he look anything close to the player he was in the NBA bubble, Warren could be the Nets’ best chance to take some of the offensive burden off their two stars.

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While Boston and Milwaukee sit atop the Nets, the Nets are back to .500 in a conference with little separation between the middle teams. The Nets know the time to stack wins is now. As usual, it must come without being at full strength and bypass some of their shortcomings.

“I just want us to keep going,” Irving said. “… Just being here for each other, no matter who’s playing out there, we have to be supportive. Games in the future will be important for us to be very communicative on the pitch, offensively and defensively. I think we’re going to look back at those times as we go through some testing and we’ll be able to take some of that positivity and carry it over to when we need it most.”

(Photo of Kevin Durant: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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