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Ben Simmons has begun playing like the two-way star the Nets envisioned when they traded for him. Kyrie Irving is back from suspension and has built up his minutes. Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. Coach Steve Nash is gone, one scapegoat sacrificed.
The Nets, getting healthier and theoretically more powerful, are about to embark on a lengthy homestand in which missing standouts or jet lag or the Los Angeles nightlife or Indiana officiating cannot be blamed for any losses.
If the Nets are going to realize their potential and turn their talent into victories, there might not be a more likely time than the stretch of seven games over 13 days at Barclays Center against beatable opponents, which will begin Sunday against the banged-up Trail Blazers.
“I think this is essential for our season,” Irving said after a loss at Indiana on Friday dropped them to 9-11. “Just to be able to establish some great habits at home like we’ve been doing, but now we’ll be tested on a seven-game home stretch.
“I’m looking forward to just being in front of our fans. But more important, being in front of our home environment and being able to flourish out there.”
At times the Nets have flourished, but in spurts rather than long stretches. Durant, Simmons and Irving looked like a title-contending Big 3 for three quarters against the Pacers before the Nets unraveled, their defense grew holes and they were outscored by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Finding consistency has been the problem, and the built-in excuse is legitimate. Their trio of stars has played together for only half their games. Simmons lacked confidence and was not healthy at the onset of the campaign. By the time he turned the corner, Irving was suspended.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn has shuffled rotations both out of need and out of experimentation to find groups of Nets who could defend and rebound, which have been weak spots on a team that has not jelled together.
Their hope is that some time to bond, to practice and work together in Brooklyn as they gain strength can rescue a squad that has not been at .500 since it was 1-1.
“This homestretch is interesting for us in order for us to take care of business. You get in that space hopefully where you get guys to return and you can solidify rotations,” Vaughn said Friday. “That’s what we’re searching for. We’ve got some of it by getting Ben playing more minutes now. That piece looks like it’s pretty solved.”
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The complementary pieces are still taking shape. After offseason ankle surgery, Seth Curry is improving, but still not playing back-to-backs. Joe Harris, who also had ankle surgery, which ended his 2021-22 season after just 14 games, has been a major disappointment, unable to find his shot. Yuta Watanabe has looked like a find, but has missed three straight games with a hamstring strain. T.J. Warren, coming off foot surgery, has yet to debut.
“There’s still some work to be done to get to know each other,” said Vaughn, who is 7-6 since taking over for Nash. “But we do need to start streamlining this thing and get going in the right direction.”
The Nets will open their homestand against the Blazers, who will be without the injured Damian Lillard, before facing the pitiful Magic on a back-to-back. The Nets won’t play on consecutive days again during the homestand, which will include one power (the Celtics), several solid opponents (Wizards, Raptors and Hawks) and a doormat (Hornets).
“You get a little bit of rhythm,” Vaughn said. “Get a chance to watch some film, get a chance to walk through some things. All that matters. We haven’t had a chance to do that on the road just because we’ve been on the road and trying to recover. So hopefully we can take advantage of that.”
And they need to take advantage of Durant while he still might be the best player in basketball and is complemented by two legitimate and unique stars. Simmons has morphed into the valuable, do-everything-but-shoot star he had not been for a few years. Irving has scored at least 20 points in each of his past three games and is looking more comfortable.
If the reality ever is to match the theoretical for the Nets, maybe the next seven games will be the catalyst.
“It’s only my fourth game back, so I’m still getting my legs under me, catching back into a rhythm. And we’re still figuring out lineups,” Irving said. “But I think once we do that, we’ll be in better shape. I don’t want to keep coming in [media sessions] and overpromising, but we’re utilizing these games to figure things out.”