KD carries short-handed Nets as 7 enter protocols

NEW YORK — After a whirlwind day that saw the Brooklyn Nets lose six players to the NBA’s health and safety protocols — including James Harden and Bruce Brown within an hour of tip-off — before escaping with a 131-129 overtime victory against the Toronto Raptors, coach Steve Nash said he briefly wasn’t sure the game would be played at all.

With seven Nets players entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols in the preceding 24 hours, Brooklyn would not have had the required eight players available to play against Toronto had star forward Kevin Durant, who was questionable with right ankle soreness, been unable to go.

“We had to debate it,” Nash said. “We had to debate Kevin’s situation. Obviously we’re talking about a franchise player: We don’t want to risk it. So we’re probably more cautious than he is. But he really wanted to play and so that was it.”

Ultimately, with the Nets playing four rookies — including David Duke Jr., a two-way player, in Harden’s typical starting backcourt spot alongside Patty Mills — in their rotation, Durant managed to carry the Nets home with a 34-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist triple-double while playing 48 minutes.

“Man, I can’t even explain how I feel,” Durant said. “It’s December and we’re down seven players and we easily could’ve punted this game. But we saw an opportunity for us to grow and get better, especially the younger guys who haven’t played a lot of meaningful games in the NBA, especially against a championship organization like Toronto, [and it] was an amazing test for us.

“I’m so proud to just be a part of this group and play with these young dudes … man, it was amazing to be out there.”

Still, the win was overshadowed by the loss of seven players to the league’s health and safety protocols in a 24-hour span. Forward Paul Millsap entered them Monday, and was followed by forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, James Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry and guard Jevon Carter on Tuesday morning. They were later joined by Harden — who walked into Barclays Center about an hour before it was announced he had entered the protocols — and Brown, who was out on the court warming up in anticipation of playing.

“There was a moment where I looked at [Nets assistant coach Tiago Splitter] and I was like, ‘Do I put on my shoes now? What’s the deal?'” Mills joked with a smile. “But that quickly transformed into a conversation within the room where it’s like, ‘Well, we’re here now. Let’s roll the ball out and let’s have fun and let’s hoop.'”

That’s a mantra the Nets will have to stick to as they navigate the next couple of weeks without a large chunk of their roster — possibly through next weekend’s Christmas Day showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers. Tuesday marked the beginning of a five-game homestand for the Nets. From there, Brooklyn heads out West to face the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 23 before playing their two games in Los Angeles this season: first against the Lakers on Christmas Day on ABC/ESPN, and then against the Clippers on Dec. 27.

While Nash said that “predominantly” all of the players who had tested positive for COVID-19 had been asymptomatic, in order to clear the league’s health and safety protocols, a player must either be out for a minimum of 10 days, or return two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart. Assuming each player falls into the 10-day return timeframe, the Christmas Day game against the Lakers would be the earliest possible return date for any of them.

As for another one of Brooklyn’s missing players, Nash said there was no update on Kyrie Irving’s status as he remains unvaccinated and, thus, ineligible to play games in New York City.

“I have no updates,” Nash said before the game. “I have connected with him but totally outside of the scope of the question and just in life in general. So, we connected last week, but not with any intel or insight that things are changing.

“I know he’s working out and I know he’d love to be playing but I think the boundaries are still the same as they were before recent reports.”

Said Durant: “Kyrie is my brother, and we talk about everything. I’d rather keep those conversations in-house, though.”

ESPN’s Bobby Marks reported that Brooklyn could have up to as many as five hardship exceptions to try to fill out their roster with more than the eight bodies they had available Tuesday, but that each one of them would cost Brooklyn close to $500,000 in luxury taxes.

As the Nets try to figure out where to go from here, that could mean continuing to place a heavy burden on Durant. Even before he played 48 minutes Tuesday night, he’s averaging more minutes per game this season (36.9) than he has since the 2013-14 season, when he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

But when asked if he was concerned about the minutes piling up early in the season, Durant said that isn’t something he’s focused on.

“I just try to do what’s required, man,” Durant said. “I mean I want to be out there. I want to play. I want to win. So it starts there.

“So, whatever I got to do to accomplish those three things, I’m going to do.”

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