The Nets’ lead stood at nine when Kevin Durant checked in with 7:37 left in the second period of their homestand against the Pelicans yesterday. It was a significant entrance, and not simply because he had come off the bench only once since being chosen second overall in the 2007 draft. Despite burning rubber for the first time in two months, he looked none the worse for wear; he certainly didn’t seem to be hampered by the hamstring injury that compelled him to miss 23 games. By the time the quarter ended, he had nine markers, two dimes, a carom, and a rejection to his name; in his short stint, he had a plus-11 line that underscored his dominance.
The Nets would go on to win the match, never even coming close to being threatened by the ineffectual Pelicans. Significantly, Durant managed to put up similar numbers in his second go-round, enabling him to end the night with 17, seven, and five — not to mention a plus-22 rating — in just 29 minutes on the floor. Not bad for a player supposedly still on the mend. And so restricted was his exposure that he had to be scratched from the starting lineup in order to ensure his availability in crunch time should the scores be close. They weren’t, thereby rendering immaterial the sacrifice he made in not being part of the First Five.
In any case, there is the flipside, which is that Durant’s minutes will definitely be going up steadily over the near term, and, barring another hiccup, back to the usual mid-thirties heading into the playoffs. The Nets aren’t in a hurry; their roster is deep, with new acquisitions Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge shoring up the frontline while he regains his stamina. And it’s fair to argue that they’ll be scarier as he gets better, and when fellow former Most Valuable Player awardee James Harden convalesces from, yes, hamstring issues as well. Meanwhile, their inability to complete the roster hasn’t stopped them from getting to the top of the highly competitive Eastern Conference.
If nothing else, the Nets’ blowout yesterday underscores their position as prohibitive favorites to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. They have unparalleled depth, providing them with the luxury of adjusting to absences. And once their Big Three are healthy together, look out. So far this season, Durant, Harden, and seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving have shared the court in only seven outings. Which is why they’re confident of going deep in the postseason, and why the rest of the league will be hard-pressed to keep up.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.