Hours before tipoff, Kevin Durant spoke glowingly about the foundation the Nets are building for years to come.
The fringes of that foundation then helped demonstrate why he is right to be optimism about the organization’s future — or maybe even the immediate future if things ever break better than they have for this depleted team.
Down Kyrie Irving (unvaccinated), Ben Simmons (herniated disc), Andre Drummond (non-COVID illness), Joe Harris (ankle surgery) and Seth Curry (left ankle sprain) for the entire second half, Durant and the ReplaceNets pieced together one of their most impressive victories of the season in a 114-106 win over the Western Conference-power Jazz in front of a sellout crowd of 17,887 at Barclays Center on Monday night.
The Nets (38-24) have won six of seven and remain in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, a game up on the ninth-place Hornets.
Brooklyn finished the game without four-fifths of what projects to be its strongest lineup, but Durant was sizzling from deep, Bruce Brown (22 points) looked like the team’s second-best player and an efficient Nic Claxton rounded out a strange but effective Big 3.
Durant, as always, is the biggest. He finished with 37 points on 15 of 23 shooting to go with nine rebounds and eight assists, a tour de force while leading the second-half burst in which the Nets left one of the top teams in the West behind.
The Jazz (45-27) were playing on the second half of a back-to-back in this New York swing, but they are still dressed Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley Jr. and Rudy Gobert, who was well handled by Claxton.
The Nets were forced to sacrifice plenty of weight in sitting Drummond, but the mobile Claxton (15 points on 7 of 8 from the floor) was everywhere Gobert was — and even threw down a transition dunk on the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
The Nets won the game in the third quarter, when they used a 20-10 run to create separation. Claxton was surprisingly the best big man as he quieted Gobert (11 points in 30 minutes) and masterfully avoided an elbow from Hassan Whiteside (six points). Brown went 6 of 11 in the third quarter alone and was the chief beneficiary of Utah’s defense shifting to Durant. Even Blake Griffin was dusted off and contributed nine points on 3 of 4 shooting.
And Durant, too, was excellent. The lead was pushed to 84-68 after a pair of Durant 3s, the second of which made him practically skip back on defense while pumping his arms at celebration. They would balloon the gap from there until the final minutes, when the Jazz got as close as six points away — but with the game in the balance, Durant drove and lobbed an alley-oop for Claxton, a fitting exclamation point.
The Nets are seemingly always playing shorthanded, but it felt more like tiny-handed after Curry went down.
The 3-point specialist was down on the court for several moments late in the second quarter after slipping and apparently turning his left ankle. He stayed in the game briefly but was limping on defense before being pulled for the rest of the game.
Curry, who recently missed three straight games with the hurting ankle, has said the ankle has bothered him dating back to his time with the 76ers. He had said he hoped to be able to manage the injury because he was not confident he could fully get over it until the offseason.
The Nets went to the locker room at halftime up two, but were only up one as the second half started. They were charged with a technical for taking too long to get to the court, and Utah sunk the free throw.
It was the oddest scene of a day of oddities, which began with Durant making an admission that he understands if the Nets simply never become whole this season and are worse for it.
“I signed here for five years to play,” Durant said after Nets shootaround. “Obviously this year’s important, but no matter what happens this year, I still want to do it again. And again. I want to continue to play, have this group together as long as we can.
“So short term, we can focus on [this year’s chances] for sure, but we’re also looking at the big picture of things, too. Seeing how we can build something sustainable for more than just a year or two or three.”
In the future, the Nets hope, Irving (who can opt out after this season) will be eligible for Barclays Center games because New York City’s private sector mandate eventually will be repealed. Just as Simmons — who is dealing with a herniated disc that is threatening to delay his team debut until next season — eventually should have a healthy back and mind.
Both of those pieces might not be in place this season.
But when Durant is playing like he is and so are the ReplaceNets, the present looks nearly as bright as the future.