The Brooklyn Nets are learning how fragile an NBA title run can be

In the second quarter of Game 4, the All-Star got an entry pass in the middle of the paint before an unlucky step turned his right ankle, knocking him out for the rest of the second-round playoff series.

That was Giannis Antetokounmpo last year against the Miami Heat, when a sprained ankle ended his season and the Milwaukee Bucks‘ hopes — slim as they were at the time — of winning the series.

Injuries to difference-making players are so crucial in the playoffs for the same reason that NBA teams tank entire seasons hoping to get such a player in the lottery: In basketball, they’re everything.

Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks’ face was covered in a mask on Sunday, but you could see the disappointment in his gait as he trailed a limping Kyrie Irving and trainers down the hallway toward the locker room in the second quarter of the Bucks’ 107-96 Game 4 win to even their Eastern Conference series at 2-2.

Marks did a brilliant job building this Nets team, making it fertile ground to attract superstars, surrounding it with a strong array of role players and hiring a loaded coaching staff. But he can’t control health. Marks won an NBA title as a player in 2005 with the San Antonio Spurs the year after Tim Duncan was limited in the playoffs with a knee injury. Marks learned a long time ago the value of a healthy star.

Antetokounmpo was on the other side of misfortune this time, as it was his foot that interfered with Irving’s landing after the Nets guard got off a shot in the lane. Like almost all ankle sprains, it was a freak play, and any suggestion to the contrary is absurd. Perhaps Antetokounmpo could’ve been called for a loose ball foul for giving an arm bar to Irving as they positioned for a rebound, but when a ball is on the rim and players are in the lane, there is almost no such thing as undercutting.

But that’s a moot point. Irving is now injured. An MRI on Monday will reveal if it’s a Grade 1 or Grade 2 sprain — the latter would almost certainly end the series for him — and his leaving the arena in a walking boot was a miserable sign.

“Injuries suck,” Nets teammate Jeff Green said. “The timing was a little rough.”

A little.

Irving doesn’t need any lectures about how fragile playoff runs are. In 2015, he broke his kneecap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in a series his Cleveland Cavaliers lost in six games, a series LeBron James and his teammates still believe they could’ve won with a healthy Irving. The next season, of course, Irving averaged 27 points in the Finals and hit one of the biggest shots of the past 25 years to turn the tables on the Golden State Warriors.

Neither does Durant, who was the 2017 and 2018 Finals MVP before a torn Achilles tendon wrecked his 2019 attempt.

When James saw Irving’s injury on Sunday, he tweeted out an expletive. A few weeks ago, James’ Los Angeles Lakers teammates were dancing on the bench and mocking the Phoenix Suns‘ attempts at defense as the Lakers got up 2-1 in their series. Anthony Davis tweaked his groin in the next game, and the Lakers are now long gone.

After the Nets traded for James Harden in January, they ended up playing 15 games without two of their three superstars. That’s the kind of year it’s been for them. Personal reasons. COVID-19 shutdowns. Hamstrings.

“We’ve had an adverse season,” said Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, who might’ve won a title in 2005 instead of Marks and the Spurs had Nash’s Suns star teammate Joe Johnson not gone down with a broken bone in his face in the second round of the playoffs.

“A lot of things have happened.”

In those 15 games without two of Harden, Durant and Irving, the Nets had an offensive rating of 114 points per 100 possessions and a net rating of +1.5 points per 100 possessions. Put another way, they still qualified as a top-10 offensive team and performed roughly equivalent to the Portland Trail Blazers by net rating.

This is an ode to how good each of them is, especially offensively, and to the depth the Nets have as a team. So, the Nets are not done in this series. But their situation isn’t great.

The Blazers were a first-round playoff team, after all, and their superstar, Damian Lillard, got double-teamed right out of the postseason. That is what the Bucks did to Durant on Sunday after Irving left and Harden was in sweats. The Nets shot just 4-of-19 on 3-pointers and scored 56 points in 30 minutes after Irving went down.

It’s a license for P.J. Tucker, whose job this series is to rough Durant up as much as is allowed, to go all out. Durant was 3-of-12 shooting with Tucker as his primary defender in Game 4, and officials were allowing Tucker to get away with plenty of contact, which didn’t help the Nets’ chances.

“We lost a great player during the game, which was tough,” Nash said. “It was a big adjustment to play without him and James.”

Nash cut off the concept of Harden trying to return early from his hamstring issue that has been bothering him since early April. Nash said earlier in the day that Harden would have to go through multiple days of setback-free workouts and recovery before he’d be cleared to play. Maybe Game 6 isn’t ruled out, but Game 5, which is now awfully pivotal, doesn’t look promising.

“James is an independent case,” Nash said. “I don’t want to rush him back and jeopardize doing something worse.”

Something worse could be a long, frustrating offseason of what-ifs. The Nets already sacrificed a year of contention knowing Durant had to recover from the Achilles injury after they signed him, which has gone wonderfully, and that Irving needed shoulder surgery.

Say whatever you want about the Nets knowing the injury histories of Durant and Irving before bringing them aboard. Harden had missed 16 games total the previous six seasons before this one; on Sunday, he missed his 24th game with the hamstring issue. And Irving’s bad landing in Game 4 could have happened to anyone.

Winning the title in the NBA is awfully hard, and the Nets are the latest team to ram home the point.

“We’ll cross our fingers,” Nash said, not really knowing what to say, “and hope it’s better.”

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