Kevin Durant, the Nets’ long, lean, basketball savant, returned Thursday night and reminded everyone what the team had missed for six weeks.
In the second half, however, the Heat’s zone defense reminded everyone what the Nets have missed and possibly will miss all season.
Durant can do almost anything on a court, but he cannot create continuity, nor can he invent chemistry, the absence of which threatens to destroy the Nets — if their health doesn’t destroy them first.
The Nets employed their 36th different starting lineup (the most in the NBA this season) Thursday in a 113-107 loss to the Heat at Barclays Center. Durant looked comfortable playing alongside new teammates Andre Drummond, Seth Curry and Goran Dragic for the first time, during a first half in which the Nets compiled 19 assists, matching their highest total for any half this season.
In the second half, however, the Heat switched into a 2-3 zone that sometimes trapped and sometimes slacked off, but always seemed to confuse the Nets. Their 16-point lead evaporated, the Heat pieced together a 14-0 run and an inability to adjust brought the eighth-place Nets (32-32) their third straight loss, sending them back to .500 for the first time since October.
The Heat did not have Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker, but they have tinkered with their zone all season and know how the system works.
“That’s what they’ve been practicing and building those habits all year,” said Durant, who returned from a left MCL sprain, has played one game with Curry, Drummond and Dragic, zero with Ben Simmons (who has yet to make his Nets debut) and three with Kyrie Irving this season.
The Nets have the talent to become a championship team, but they haven’t had the health and vaccination statuses — and they might not have the cohesion, either.
In the rosiest of scenarios, Simmons will make his Nets debut March 18 against the Trail Blazers. The jewel of the James Harden trade has suffered back soreness during his attempted ramp-up toward a return, and general manager Sean Marks told YES Network on Thursday they hope he can begin team workouts at the end of next week.
If everything goes according to plan — which would qualify as an upset for a player who hasn’t been in uniform since June — Simmons would have 12 regular-season games to mesh with his teammates. Of that dozen, Irving — under the current New York City rules at least — would be eligible for three games.
Even if the Nets, who entered Friday five games behind the sixth-place Cavaliers with 18 games remaining, hold on to their play-in position and enter the tournament with the most ability of any team, they might have run out of time to answer questions that need answers.
Will Simmons, a non-shooter but brilliant orchestrator, be able to play alongside Irving, who dominates the ball? Will Irving play significant minutes alongside Curry in a lineup that would sacrifice significant height? Would Simmons work best with a slashing center such as Nic Claxton, a bruising one such as Drummond or a midrange option such as LaMarcus Aldridge?
“We are cutting it close. There’s under 20 games left in the season,” Durant said Thursday. “We have to go out there and figure it out.”
They didn’t against Miami, when Durant passed all the first-game-back tests, but his team flunked chemistry.
“[Friday] is going to be a good teaching day because we have to be prepared if some other teams are playing zone against us,” Dragic said, though the Nets were off and should be practicing against looks 2-3 Saturday before playing Sunday in Boston. “We have to figure out those things and how to get better shots.”
Typically, that takes time. Games teach players how to act in moments, when to defer, when to take control, how to attack zones, when to switch on screens.
The Nets were down by two in the closing minute Thursday when Miami ran a pick-and-roll that forced Durant onto guard Tyler Herro, while Bruce Brown was stuck underneath on Bam Adebayo. Dragic, in his fourth game with the team, did not notice immediately and arrived with help a touch late, as Adebayo finished a contested layup to make it a two-possession game.
“There are some units out there that haven’t really played together, and so that’s a part of this process,” said Jacque Vaughn, the Nets’ head coach while Steve Nash is acting in COVID protocols. “We’ll get together and continue to put units together. We’ve got to figure this thing out quickly.”
Fans have heard this before.
“[Establishing chemistry] could take one game, it could take 20 games,” Durant said, though the Nets no longer have 20 games.