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When Kevin Durant sprained his left MCL in a victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 15, the working theory was that the Brooklyn Nets would struggle to replace the NBA’s leading scorer. What few anticipated was the Nets diving head-first down an open elevator shaft.

Brooklyn’s victory combined with a Chicago Bulls loss on Jan. 15 pulled the Nets to within a half-game of the Eastern Conference lead at 27–15. Durant returns to the lineup on March 2 to a team that went 5–16 without him.

The Nets are 32–31, 4.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for the sixth playoff spot in the East. They’re only 1.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Charlotte Hornets to avoid needing to win two play-in tournament games to reach the postseason.

While Durant was away, some thing happened in Brooklyn. James Harden is an ex-Net, a move that might have flown under the radar. The former MVP is back, but it might already be too late to save the Nets from the ignominy of a play-in appearance.

It’s hard to comprehend how entirely the Brooklyn Nets collapsed without Kevin Durant

Through Jan. 15, the Brooklyn Nets had the seventh-best offense in the NBA, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions. The defense wasn’t other-worldly but was in the middle of the pack at 14th, surrendering 108.8 points per 100.

Then Kevin Durant hurt his knee. He might have proved his case for Most Valuable Player in absentia because it’s hard to imagine a team playing much worse than Brooklyn did in its last 21 games.

An offensive rating of 110.5 ranks 19th in the NBA since Jan. 16. Only the tankeriffic Houston Rockets were worse than Brooklyn’s 118.3 defensive rating. Their minus-7.8 net rating in that span is 27th, ahead of only the varying degrees of awful that are the Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons, and the aforementioned Rockets.

Durant’s return comes against the shorthanded Miami Heat, who are on the second night of a road back-to-back after a come-from-ahead 120–119 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Maybe having the 12-time All-Star can help the Nets out of their homecourt funk, at the very least.

The Brooklyn Nets are awful at Barclays Center

In their seven games at Barclays Center while Kevin Durant was sidelined, the Brooklyn Nets were 1–6. Of the 20 teams currently in playoff or play-in positions, only Brooklyn (13–17) and New Orleans (14–17) have losing records at home.

Part of the problem for the Nets has been the season-long absence of Kyrie Irving when the team plays at the Clays. While New York City is ending its vaccine mandate for public spaces on March 7, Irving remains ineligible to play in the city. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic via Twitter, the private-sector mandate remains in effect.

That creates a peak pandemic situation. Irving can’t play basketball at Barclays Center. But he could buy a ticket and sit in the stands after Monday.

For the season, Brooklyn’s minus-3.8 net rating at home is 26th in the NBA. Perhaps it’s best the team’s chances of having homecourt advantage for the postseason are almost nonexistent. The Nets are six games behind fourth-place Milwaukee with 19 games to play. The math is not in their favor.

Just escaping the play-in is probably too big a task at this point.

Kevin Durant and the Nets are all but locked into the play-in tournament

Kevin Durant returns to the Brooklyn Nets on March 3. But they are destined for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament after going 5-16 while the former MVP was out.
Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets celebrates a basket against the New Orleans Pelicans | Al Bello/Getty Images

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

Could the Brooklyn Nets go supernova over the final five weeks of the season and get into the Eastern Conference’s top six? Mathematically, nothing is decided yet, and Kevin Durant provides a lot of duct tape to cover up the team’s flaws.

But realistically, Brooklyn is 4.5 games behind Boston for the last guaranteed playoff spot in the East. The Nets are 1–2 against the Celtics and can negate the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win at TD Garden on March 6. A loss in that game gives the tiebreaker to the Cs.

Brooklyn still has four games left against Atlantic Division foes — two against the New York Knicks (March 13 at home, April 6 in Manhattan) and one each against the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers (March 10 in Philly). They are 7–5, while Boston is 8–6 with two divisional games remaining.

But 4.5 games is a lot of ground to make up in 19 games. That’s particularly true in trying to catch the Celtics, who are 21–8 since Dec. 31.

A slightly more realistic goal is making up the three games on the Toronto Raptors for the seventh spot. The teams split their four regular season games and Toronto is also 7–5 in the division. But do the Nets want to host the Raptors with the seventh seed on the line?

It doesn’t matter; Toronto still has a vaccine mandate in effect, rendering Irving ineligible at either venue.

But seeding for the play-in festival of mediocrity is a problem for the future. Right now, the Brooklyn Nets must get Kevin Durant reintegrated and try to get some momentum as the season winds down. Or at the very least, stop getting their teeth kicked in every single night.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.