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The Nets, Celtics, Pelicans fallout from no Kevin Durant trade

There’s an old saw in sports: Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.

To which, given how this NBA season has unfolded, especially over the past month, we should now add: Sometimes the best trade requests are the ones you don’t honor.

After Kevin Durant asked to be traded this offseason, the Nets responded with the equivalent of the “We’ll look into it and circle back to you” email, setting a super-steep asking price (which was their right!) and essentially playing four corners until reaching a co-branded truce with their superstar. The team then spent the early portions of the season in various modes of embarrassment over the firing of Steve Nash as head coach, their flirtation with the disgraced Ime Udoka as his potential replacement and, most prominently, the whole Kyrie Irving balagan. All while playing sub-.500 basketball.

Now they’re the hottest team in the NBA, and quietly — because sometimes it feels as if the Nets are least relevant when they’re playing actual basketball, even if they’re playing it very well — beginning to resemble the title contender they were rumored to be.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) argues a call during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kevin Durant is averaging 30 points a game with historically efficient shooting numbers.

The Nets have won nine games in a row. They’re up to third in the Eastern Conference standings (a 3-6 subway series against the Knicks? We can dream). They’re up to seventh in the league in net rating, outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions, with the No. 5 offense and the No. 12 defense. Since Jacque Vaughn took over as coach on Nov. 1, they’re third in the league in net rating. Since Irving returned on Nov. 20 from being told [stern voice] to go off and think long and hard about what you’ve done, they’re 15-3 and likewise third in the NBA in net rating over that span.

And Durant is making it happen by not sulking and by playing wondrous basketball. He’s averaging 30 points and shooting a career-best 56.3 percent from the field, including 62.6 percent on 2-point attempts. He’s adding 6.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 blocks per night while having played the fourth-most minutes in the NBA. At 34 years old, with a reattached Achilles. Durant’s true shooting percentage — adjusted for 3-pointers and free throws — of 67.3 is the 37th-best single-season mark in NBA history, behind a bunch of big men who didn’t shoot (including this season’s version on Nic Claxton) and one-off campaigns from Kyle Korver marksman types, and is unprecedented from a 30-a-night scorer. Again, he’s 34 years old.

Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets considers his options as he's guarded by Donovan Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Since Kyrie Irving returned from a team suspension, the Nets are third in the NBA in net rating.
NBAE via Getty Images

Durant’s superlative play amid this climb up the standings and the Nets’ relatively long ongoing stretch without needing to reset the days-since-last-controversy counter allows them to recite a comforting talking point about benefiting from a “focus on basketball.” The subtext of which is: See, our jobs are much easier without all the questions about our second-best player’s refusal to disavow antisemitism.

But it’s not just the Nets who have emerged the better for not caving to Durant’s initial request and winning a round for The Man in the struggle against “player empowerment.”

The Celtics and the Pelicans, two of the teams mentioned most frequently as possible destinations for Durant and therefore two teams that ultimately decided not to trade for him, are potential Finals teams enjoying excellent vibes. (The less said about the Raptors and Scottie Barnes, the better.)

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives to the basket against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.
The excellent play of Jayson Tatum (0) and Jaylen Brown (7) has rewarded the league-best Celtics’ decision not to go all-in on a Durant trade.

The Celtics are the consensus top team in the NBA, with a league-leading 25-10 record and advanced metrics that back it up. Jayson Tatum is the MVP of the world in which we forget about Nikola Jokic (maybe even one where we don’t), and Jaylen Brown — who would have been the centerpiece of the Nets’ return — is scoring 27 per night as his wingman.

The Pelicans are the surprise of the league, vaulting to one game out of first place in the Western Conference and putting together a top-six offense and defense. Zion Williamson is mashing people. They’re deep, they’re young and they’re fun. And one of the draft picks they surely would have had to raid from their cupboard in a Durant deal? The Lakers’ 2023 unprotected first-round pick, which is currently seeded seventh in the lottery.

Today’s back page

The back cover of the New York Post on December 28, 2022.
New York Post

Mav-solutely crushing

We need to take 35 seconds to marvel at the Knicks, which is more time than it took them to blow a nine-point lead at the end of regulation en route to a spirit-crushing 126-121 overtime loss Tuesday night to an imperial Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

• Doncic finished with 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists, the first triple-double of that magnitude in NBA history. Get the man his recovery beer.

• The Knicks took a 112-103 lead on a pair of Miles McBride free throws with 33.9 seconds remaining. The Mavericks then got a 3-pointer and an and-1 Doncic putback sandwiched around a Quentin Grimes turnover to cut the lead to three, and the Knicks still led by three when they fouled Doncic with 4.2 seconds left. He converted the first free throw, missed the second on purpose, corralled the rebound and hit a leaner while falling down to force OT. Brutal.

• Until the Knicks loss, NBA teams were 13,884-0 in the past 20 seasons when leading by at least nine points with 35 or fewer seconds remaining, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

• Tom Thibodeau said: “It’s tough. It’s a shame to not come out of here with a win.”

• Jalen Brunson missed the game — his return to his former stomping ground in Dallas — due to hip soreness he suffered Sunday. It was the first game Brunson has missed in a Knicks uniform. RJ Barrett exited the game after just two minutes due to a right index finger laceration and did not return.

• The Knicks (18-17) have lost four in a row since reeling off a four-game winning streak.

Kodai Senga’s journey

Steve Cohen has a good idea what he’s paying for next season. The Mets’ record payroll is filled with Cy Young Award winners and All-Stars, veterans and established performers in New York.

But the biggest wild card in the Mets owner’s budget is how Japanese pitcher Kodai Senga — who signed a five-year, $75 million contract this month — will fare in his first season in the majors. Senga, who turns 30 next month, has longed for this opportunity. He spent several years trying to join MLB, only to be repeatedly denied permission by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who won six championships during Senga’s decade with the team.

Kodai Senga is pictured in the uniforms of Japan's SoftBank Hawks and MLB's New York Mets, with Citi Field in the background.
Post photo composite

As detailed in a new Sports+ feature published this morning, Senga was an unheralded prospect who became one of his country’s biggest stars, whose unwavering confidence steered him to select perhaps the most pressure-filled — and potentially rewarding — destination on the free-agent market.

“I just told him, ‘You better do good,’” Brooklyn native Dennis Sarfate, Senga’s longtime teammate (2014-21), told Senga before joining the Mets. “It can be tough if you’re not playing up to that signing, so you better earn that $15 million a year because they’ll let you know if you’re not. I thought he’d pick the West Coast, being closer to Japan and with the travel … But I guess he wanted the big lights.”

— Howie Kussoy

On the up slope

USA's Mikaela Shiffrin competes during the first run of the giant slalom of the FIS Alpine Skiing Women's World Cup in Semmering, Austria on December 27, 2022.
Mikaela Shiffrin skies to her 78th career World Cup victory, four shy of the all-time women’s record.
AFP via Getty Images

The last time most folks read about or considered “Mikaela Shiffrin” and “giant slalom” in the same sentence, if they ever did, was during the 2022 Beijing Olympics, which happened less than 11 months ago, according to my surprising calculations. That was when the American skiing superstar suffered an Olympics from hell, crashing out of the giant slalom, slalom and alpine combined and failing to medal despite being favored in several events.

Shiffrin was the picture of disappointment. That she was the best skier in the world only made her travails more baffling for the viewing public — and made the armchair debate about her state of mind more intense.

But let’s run it back: Mikaela Shiffrin won the World Cup giant slalom race on Tuesday in Semmering, Austria. It was her 78th career World Cup win, moving her within four victories of the women’s record held by Lindsey Vonn. It was her fourth World Cup win of the young season — she leads the standings — as well as her first win in the giant slalom discipline in more than a year. She is still the best skier in the world.

Shiffrin, 27, was set to race another giant slalom on Wednesday and a slalom on Thursday in Semmering with Vonn’s mark in her sights.

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