MILWAUKEE — The Nets might not be at the same level of concern as their fans, but they’re getting there. Or they damn well should be.
Kevin Durant is still working back to his return from a knee injury and Ben Simmons is working toward his Nets debut, but the remaining schedule is shrinking and taking the margin for error with it.
“Alert level is high, because it’s only 22 games left if I’m not mistaken,” newcomer Goran Dragic admitted before making his Nets debut Saturday night against the Bucks. “We’re at that point of the season that you have a lot of new guys. You try to bring those guys in and try to create that chemistry, team chemistry.
“A lot of guys are injured, too. So when we get everybody back, it’s going to be much easier. But no excuses, we have to play well with the guys that we have right now, [against Milwaukee], and try to get this win.”
Wins have been hard to come by lately.
A Nets team that had been 27-15 and sitting in second place of the Eastern Conference and sixth-best in the NBA when Durant sprained his left MCL on Jan. 15, came into Saturday just 4-14 since, tied for 27th in the league.
The Nets entered Saturday 3 ½ games behind Boston for the final guaranteed playoff spot. They were two behind Toronto with a home-and-home looming against the Raptors on Monday and Tuesday. A bad few days could push them deeper into the play-in — and red-alert territory, alongside their fans.
Between Simmons’ absence and James Harden’s dominance in his first game with the 76ers, it’s hardly shocking.
Harden, who was disgruntled and clearly sandbagging, had finally told the Nets front office he wanted to leave. General manager Sean Marks dealt the former MVP to the Sixers at the Feb. 10 trade deadline for Simmons, Andre Drummond, Seth Curry and a couple of first-round draft picks.
What’s happened since has come as a surprise to almost no one.
Simmons — who hadn’t played since last June, holding out and citing mental-health issues — is still deep in a painstaking ramp-up process. Despite the fact the Nets are widely viewed in league circles as having won the trade — a deal they made as much to secure their future as to win this season — seeing Harden star for the Sixers has still predictably sent apoplectic Brooklyn fans into a frenzy.
Harden, whose Nets swan song was a desultory four-point, six-turnover effort on Feb. 2 in which he shot 2-for-11, was back to his old form in his Sixers debut Thursday.
He poured in 27 points on 7-for-12 shooting, had 12 assists, eight boards and just two turnovers to lead a 133-102 drubbing of Minnesota. It was Philadelphia’s biggest victory of the entire season and tied for its highest-scoring output.
If the Nets’ tenuous place in the standings didn’t already have their fans in a lather, Harden’s Philadelphia debut did. That, combined with the fact that Simmons is still far from making his debut.
While Simmons is traveling with the Nets, it seems unlikely he’ll play this week. The Nets’ performance team generally requires stringing together at least three high-intensity workouts without incident before clearing players.
Simmons hasn’t had a single one yet and it’s hard to expect him to notch three until at least their next legitimate road trip, a three-game swing March 6-10.
“No, he has not done high intensity yet. Just ramping him up still. We’ll see that one is still out there,” coach Steve Nash said. “He’s doing individual work. He’s doing physio and strength and conditioning and skill work. He’s getting all three building his body back up and his game.”
The Nets don’t have that much time left to build, with Simmons yet to debut and Kyrie Irving only eligible for seven more regular-season games. They have to build chemistry, and have an alarming lack of runway to do it.
“Yeah, you know, with the situations I’ve been in, it can take anywhere from an entire season to a few weeks,” Drummond said. “But I don’t think we have that luxury to wait.”