Before Kevin Durant’s injury, Thursday’s showdown between the Atlantic Division rivals looked like a test balloon between contenders.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) dribbles against Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard (11) as Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) watches during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh) The Associated Press

On Monday, the Nets announced that Kevin Durant has a left MCL sprain and will miss at least two weeks, which is a shame because Thursday’s game between the Nets and Celtics had a chance to be perhaps the juiciest Eastern Conference game to date this season.

The Nets have been the hottest team in the NBA over the last two months and have hurtled to the No. 2 spot in the East. After starting the season 9-11, with rumors about a Durant trade starting to percolate once again following his highly dramatic summer, Brooklyn rattled off a 16-2 stretch that rivaled the Celtics’ 18-4 run start to the year. Since Nov. 27, when the Nets’ run began following a loss to the Pacers, they have a net rating of +8.6, which is the best in the league. The Celtics have the NBA’s best net rating for the year after their torrid start, but they have a net rating of 4.8 (6th in the NBA) over that same stretch. 

Of course, a torrid stretch doesn’t make the Nets the better team overall. The early-season Celtics were essentially untouchable in the month of November, and glimpses of that team are often visible even though they have absorbed a few embarrassing losses since. 

The Nets, meanwhile, are always a threat to implode even when they succeed. Durant made his trade request as recently as late September, and Kyrie Irving could hardly be described as “steady.” Shortly before the Nets’ run began – just 50 days ago – he returned from an eight-game suspension after sharing an antisemitic film on social media. Last year, he played just 29 games because he refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Still, the Nets have looked very different recently. The Durant-Irving pairing outscores opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions. Importantly, they have been solid defensively with Irving on the floor, which is a major departure from 2021-22. 

Perhaps most importantly, before their run began – back when they were still hovering below .500 – Durant expressed support for new head coach Jacque Vaughn and explained that he felt Steve Nash didn’t hold the team accountable before his firing on Nov. 1.

“I went to [the Nets] and was like, ‘Yo, I don’t like how we are preparing,’” Durant told Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes in November, when asked about his trade request. “‘I don’t like shootarounds. I like practices. I need more. I want to work on more s***. Hold me accountable. Get on my ass in film if that’s going to help you get on everybody else’s head. I want to do more closeouts. I want to work on more shell drills at practice.’ …

“Nobody was on that same vibe with me. Jacque Vaughn is.”

Durant’s narrative sounds coherent, and thus pretty believable (and not just damage control). Shootarounds are very different from real practices, and if the Nets needed more guidance, Durant’s frustration is understandable. Durant praised Nash’s basketball intellect after the Hall of Fame point guard was hired, but great players don’t always make great coaches, and Nash thoroughly lost an admittedly difficult locker room. 

But Vaughn appears to have the Nets’ attention, and they are starting to put a lot of talented pieces together. In their late December win over a fully healthy Cavaliers team who got 46 points from Darius Garland, Durant and Irving scored 32 apiece, Ben Simmons recorded his standard bizarre-but-productive stat line of four points, nine rebounds and eight assists, and T.J. Warren came off the bench to drop 23 points. Neither Joe Harris nor Seth Curry played. If the Nets enter the playoffs cohesive and healthy, they are much toothier than the team that got swept last year by the Celtics.

And still, the Celtics have the highest ceiling of any team in the league. Jayson Tatum stands as tall as Durant in MVP conversations. Jaylen Brown, like Irving, can be the best player on the floor at any time. Robert Williams appears to be limited in minutes, but he is back, and his lineups have outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass. The Celtics’ bench is deeper, and at its best, it spaces the floor better as well. 

Interestingly, the Nets – who were once considered the NBA’s newest super team – are now the ones with something to prove against the Celtics after last year’s sweep. Nic Claxton has been significantly better defensively, but Tatum hunts him relentlessly. All over the floor, the Nets have targets for both Tatum and Brown to exploit. Robert Williams gives them fits. Grant Williams and Al Horford defended Durant expertly in the postseason. When 3-pointers are falling, can the Nets slow the Celtics’ offensive train before it picks up too much speed? Is the Nets’ 110.3 defensive rating since Nov. 27 sustainable?

Those questions wouldn’t have been fully answered by Thursday’s game anyway given regular-season weirdness (the Celtics will be on the road playing the second end of a back-to-back, the Nets will be home after three days off), and Durant’s absence is a shame. The next challenge for Brooklyn will be to tread water in the absence of its best player and maintain its standing in the Eastern Conference.

But if the Nets can pick up where they left off when Durant returns, their resurgence has the potential to make a rivalry with the Celtics – which had grown a bit monotonous after last year’s sweep – much more vibrant going forward. A late playoff showdown between the two teams would be a dramatic, star-soaked affair.

Just don’t expect Thursday to be a true preview any more.


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