In a different life, a disconnected Nets star named Stephon Marbury wrote the words “All Alone” on his sneakers. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were not expected to deliver any such message in Game 2 against Milwaukee. They had each other, after all, which was the plan all along.
Before James Harden was a glimmer in Brooklyn’s eye, Irving and Durant, or Durant and Irving, were signed to lead a supporting cast of capable role players to an NBA title after Durant’s ruptured Achilles’ had healed. That vision could be making a comeback in this second-round series. Harden might return at full strength from his re-injured right hamstring in short order, or he might be limited enough – or outright unavailable enough – to force his fellow members of the Big 3 to become a Tantalizing 2 that carries the playoff load.
Starting with Monday night’s game at the Barclays Center, Nets fans would not be the only New York, New York parties invested in the outcome. Knicks fans should be watching too, since their franchise’s grand plan in the wake of the Kristaps Porzingis trade was to sign Durant and Irving as championship centerpieces. Porzingis seems to be slowly withering away in Luka Doncic’s considerable shadow in Dallas, but that’s not the point. The Knicks lost out to the Nets on Durant and Irving (after losing out to the lottery gods on Zion Williamson), and signed Julius Randle as a consolation prize.
Randle will never be forgotten in the city for leading the Knicks back to respectability in his second year. But as he proved in a dispiriting first-round loss to Atlanta, he will never be Durant, not even close. The Knicks’ second-best player, RJ Barrett, will probably never be an Irving, though he still hasn’t reached his 21st birthday and, well, we’ll see.
Either way, while Knicks fans watched their “stars” struggle mightily against the Hawks, Durant and Irving (and Harden) were lights out against the Celtics, before Durant and Irving (without Harden) were lights out again in the Game 1 victory over Milwaukee. Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said he was “heartbroken” over the Harden injury 43 seconds into the Eastern Conference semis, and his two relatively healthy stars sure sounded gutted too.
“I hate that it had to happen to him right now,” Durant said.
“When you see the game be snatched away so early from one of our brothers,” Irving said, “we feel for him.”
Irving added that, as much as Harden’s absence would hurt, he was confident that the Nets “have the capability of rising to the occasion. We’re a very mature basketball club, because we play selflessly and we trust each other. …It’s mainly up to us to continue to just play the right way. Basketball rewards the team that brings the physicality first, and continues to play a well-detailed game.”
Asked after Game 1 if he believed Brooklyn still had enough, without Harden, to beat the Bucks over seven games, Durant said, “I’m not even thinking like that. I’m taking it a day at a time, a second at a time, get ready for practice tomorrow. …We’ll see what happens.”
The Nets could not beat the Bucks without Harden in the regular season, losing two games in three days last month in Milwaukee. But that was then and this is most certainly now. In every sport, on every level, the great ones save their signature performances for the postseason. Durant has his back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs with the Warriors. Irving has his title and Game 7 dagger over Steph Curry as LeBron James’ teammate in Cleveland.
That’s why the Knicks desperately wanted to sign both, to add high-end talent and championship muscle memory to a franchise that hadn’t won it all since the Watergate hearings got underway in the U.S. Senate. In 2019, appearing on ESPN New York’s “The Michael Kay Show,” Knicks owner James Dolan said, “I can tell you from what we’ve heard, we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.” On cue, Knicks president Steve Mills swung and missed on those free agents.
The Nets had already built an attractive culture of development. Shame on the Knicks for not having one in place – pre-Tom Thibodeau – to land the two game-changers, Durant and Irving, that most of the league had earmarked for Madison Square Garden. It has to hurt to watch them win playoff games in Brooklyn.
So chances are, Nets fans wouldn’t be the only locals watching with great interest Monday night to see how far two-thirds of their Big 3 can take this. Knicks fans might be checking in to see what might have been. And more to the point, what should have been.