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The Brooklyn Nets will never be at their best when Kevin Durant is injured, but there is a significant difference between how they performed without him a season ago and how they play now. Last season, when Durant sprained his MCL, the Nets went 5-16 and had an 11-game losing streak. They’ve only lost the two games they’ve played since he was injured this season, but both were competitive, one without Ben Simmons, and they won their only game earlier in the season without Durant.

The man at the center of Durant-less Brooklyn’s approach is Kyrie Irving, and he not only gave himself credit for how the Nets are playing, but seemed to take a subtle shot at former teammate James Harden in the process. “Well, I make up all the time, that helps.” Irving said following Sunday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. “We don’t have anyone who is halfway in the dressing room.”

The blow appears to be aimed at Harden, who originally forced a trade to Brooklyn in 2021 but managed to get traded to the Philadelphia 76ers at the 2022 NBA trade deadline after a disappointing year with the Nets. Harden was present early in Durant’s absence last season, and while his numbers were mostly stable, his defensive efforts were mixed and his interest visibly waned. It ended with Harden scoring four points in his final game as a Nets in an 11-point loss to the Sacramento Kings. In that sense, Irving is right. Harden was halfway out of the locker room.

But Irving is still the odd man out to make that point. He may have been fully invested in the Nets when he played last season, but he spent more than half of last season out of Brooklyn’s locker room by choice. His decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 prevented him from playing most of the season in home games and some in road games. Harden once joked about giving Irving the vaccine himself, suggesting he wasn’t thrilled with his star teammate’s inconsistent access.

Irving also considered leaving the Nets this offseason. He had a player option that he could opt out of to become a free agent, where many assumed he would take a huge pay cut to join the Los Angeles Lakers. That didn’t happen, but the Lakers and Nets reportedly discussed trading Irving without a deal in place. Irving missed eight games this season after being suspended for sharing an anti-Semitic documentary on his social media platforms.

Irving could be an All-in on the Nets right now. Brooklyn’s locker room seems harmonious. But given all the controversy he’s been embroiled in over the past few seasons, he probably shouldn’t be throwing stones in Harden’s direction. Ultimately, though, it’s Irving’s performance that matters. Durant will likely miss about a month, and it will be on his shoulders to keep the Nets afloat when Harden isn’t around to share the scoring load.


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