SAN ANTONIO — The Nets’ first two games without Kevin Durant have looked eerily similar: Hit shots for three quarters, hit a wall in the fourth.
While Kyrie Irving has been fantastic playing alongside Durant, he has looked fatigued without him. The guard cooled off late in losses to Boston and Oklahoma City, and it is clear the Nets can’t keep handing him the ball every single crunch-time possession and hoping he can just iso them out of trouble.
Together, Brooklyn’s star duo have been so great they have made bad shots look good. But with Durant sidelined by a knee injury, they must start finding other solutions, beginning Tuesday against the Spurs.
“That’s the way we’ve been playing all year,” Seth Curry admitted. “We’ve just been kind of iso-ball, relying a lot on Kevin and Kyrie just to create one-on-one offense, sometimes scoring on two or three defenders.
“So we’ve got to figure out other ways we’re going to play with Kevin not out there creating shots for himself and other people. We’re a different team now, so we’ve got to figure it out.”
A different one, and temporarily a worse one. But how much worse?
The Nets collapsed last season when Durant suffered a sprained MCL, going 5-16 to tumble from second place in the Eastern Conference to eighth. Now, after spraining his right MCL on Jan. 8 in Miami, Durant has another week to go before he is re-evaluated.
Irving and others have bristled at the comparison, saying this team — also second in the Eastern Conference — is different than the one that capitulated a year ago.
“I’m consistently in the lineup: That helps,” said Irving, who had only been playing road games last season during Durant’s absence. “We also don’t have ‘halfway-in’ anyone in the locker room, and there’s a primary focus on the big picture here.”
Through the Miami game where Durant went down, Irving had been averaging 26.0 points on 48.8/36.6/90.7 shooting splits. But in the couple of losses since, he has slumped to 19.5 on 36.4/22.2/75.0.
“I’m doing the best job I can. I wish I could make a few more shots within the minutes and be efficient,” Irving said. “I know that’ll come, and I’ll continue to prepare the best way I know how and be a better example for the guys in the locker room.”
Irving might be overtaxed, logging 38:01 against the Celtics on Thursday and 38:08 against the Thunder on Sunday. And both defenses could key on him down the stretch.
Against Boston Irving shot 9 of 24 and just 3 of 11 from 3-point range. But he never sat in the final period, shooting 3 of 10, missing all three 3-point attempts and going a game-worst minus-9.
Irving was worse against the Thunder, finishing with 15 points on 7-for-20 shooting. And he mustered just two points in a subpar fourth quarter on 1-for-4 shooting — missing both 3-point attempts — and finishing a minus-7 as Brooklyn got outscored 37-22.
“Fourth quarter again where we don’t come up with enough scoring to complement the stops,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “That’s the challenge for us as a group to be able to sustain. That is harder mentally and physically because Kevin does save you at times and give you a bucket, so now your defense is set.
“That’s the challenge for this group is they have to dig in and have a mental fortitude greater than before, because every possession does matter.”
The Nets took a five-point cushion into the fourth quarter Sunday but gave up a 15-6 run in the first four minutes. They’ll need better Tuesday.
“Fourth quarter, our offense stalled. We weren’t putting the ball in the basket. It wore on us mentally on the other end. Missed shots affected us on the other end,” Curry said. “We’ve got to be our best in the fourth quarter, especially offensively because guys put pressure on us defensively in transition when we miss. Got to figure where we’re going to go; can’t just rely on Kyrie to make tough shots.”
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