Kevin Durant and the Nets Can Send Message to Top-Seeded Heat

At long last, Kevin Durant returns to the floor Thursday to save the Brooklyn Nets. It could not come at a better time.

Durant has missed the last 21 games because of an MCL sprain suffered in mid-January. The Nets have gone just 5-16 in that span, sliding to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn still faces plenty of unknowns, as well. Ben Simmons is dealing with a back injury that has delayed his season debut. Kyrie Irving’s potential to become a full-time player remains uncertain.

Lots of questions marks surround this Nets team. Still, KD has a huge opportunity to send a title-sized message in his first game back.

Brooklyn hosts the top-seeded Miami Heat at the Barclays Center. While much of the attention in the East tends to go to the Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat have quietly established themselves as possibly the conference’s team to beat.

However, Durant can reestablish Brooklyn’s title credentials with a strong performance.

Kevin Durant was having an MVP-caliber season before his injury

The 2021-22 NBA MVP Award race is arguably one of the best in years. It’s too bad Durant isn’t in contention for the award.

Durant was inarguably having one of the best seasons in basketball before his injury. In his first 36 games, KD averaged 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. He shot 52% from the field and 37.2% from beyond the arc, carrying the brunt of the scoring load and filling a role as the team’s top playmaker when James Harden missed a stretch in mid-December.

But Durant’s MCL sprain ended any hopes of capturing a second MVP. The injury came as another frustrating setback for a player many consider the best on the planet. Between the torn Achilles suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals and other physical issues sustained in recent seasons, Durant has been robbed of multiple years playing basketball at the highest level.

However, it’s unlikely KD is dwelling on the past. He probably has his mind on bringing the Nets back into the title picture. That mission starts Thursday against the Heat.

A win over the Heat could spark the Nets in the final stretch

Despite holding the No. 1 seed in the East, the Heat seem to fly under the radar. It’s puzzling, because Miami’s game is fairly loud.

The Heat rank seventh in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating, and fifth in net rating. They wreak havoc on opposing offenses by sending blitz doubles in the post and always having clean rotations, routinely forcing turnovers. Erik Spoelstra’s team also leads the league in three-point percentage and shares the ball effectively.

Miami has the balance and roster makeup to win an NBA championship. The Heat are the perfect test for Kevin Durant in his return. It’s also a chance for the Nets to remind fans of their capabilities.

On the one hand, Brooklyn remains depleted. Irving will not play on Thursday given it’s a home game. Simmons and Joe Harris remain sidelined. Still, this is Durant we’re talking about. He nearly led the Nets to the Conference Finals by himself last season.

Granted, Durant will have to readjust to game speed and get his bearings after over a month away from competitive action. Miami’s swarming defense will surely send ample doubles his way and make life difficult right from the jump. That said, KD could instill a lot of confidence in his team if the Nets come away with a win.

Can Durant help the Nets make up ground?

Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant reacts during an NBA game against the New York Knicks in February 2022
Kevin Durant reacts during a game against the New York Knicks on February 16, 2022 | Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

Durant is still capable of carrying a franchise on his shoulders. However, it will take a Herculean effort to keep Brooklyn out of the play-in tournament.

The Nets are 4.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for the No. 6 seed, the final guaranteed playoff spot. Considering Brooklyn only has 19 games remaining, it looks unlikely that Brooklyn can avoid the play-in.

But there’s tons of variability at play.

Perhaps Durant’s presence makes recent Nets signee Goran Dragic more dangerous. The same holds for fellow backcourt players Seth Curry and Patty Mills. Irving receiving full-time clearance and giving KD an elite co-star could drastically impact the home stretch, as could Simmons’ eventual debut and Harris’ possible return.

The Nets have a lot of work to do in the final month-plus. It begins with Kevin Durant’s return to the hardwood on Thursday, when he can give Brooklyn a lifeline against the top-seeded Heat.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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