"To be honest, I feel like our season was derailed by my injury," Durant said after Monday's practice. "So I'm not looking at it like we're just not a good basketball team. It's like there wasn't a lot of continuity with me and Kyrie [Irving] out of the lineup, that's just what it is. When we're all on the floor together, I like what we got."
Durant injured the MCL in his left knee during a Jan. 15 win over the New Orleans Pelicans and had to miss over 1½ months while rehabbing the injury. During his rehab, the Nets, who were 27-15 at the time and still playing with Kyrie Irving on a part-time basis because of the New York City vaccination mandate, went on an 11-game losing streak and were 5-17 in Durant's absence.
The Nets also traded James Harden and Paul Millsap to the Philadelphia 76ers just before the trade deadline in February for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-round picks. Even after getting Durant back on March 3 and getting Irving back full time on March 27 after New York Mayor Eric Adams pulled back the city's vaccination requirement for professional athletes and performers, the Nets have struggled to find a rhythm.
Despite that, Durant and Nets coach Steve Nash remain optimistic that the group still holds the belief that it can play its best basketball in the near future.
"I mean, who knows if we do it or we don't, but we have the belief and we'll give it a shot," Nash said. "I don't know that many teams, other than maybe ours last year, have been in this position before where we've played a handful or more of games together going into a playoff, but it's not like there's a blueprint. But we can't diminish our belief, our attitude; we fight every day to get a little bit better ...
"If we get negative or think this is too much or the world's stacked against us, this is not going to be productive. And I think all of us are kind of enjoying the challenge."
Durant, who noted that this wasn't the most up-and-down year he has had in his career, having started his second NBA season 3-29 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, isn't concerned about which team or teams the Nets might face in next week's play-in tournament. The Nets sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with four regular-season games left to play, which would mean they would have to win two games to make the playoffs if the current standings hold.
"Who cares?" Durant said when asked whether he has looked at the standings. "Whoever we play, we play. I don't care who we play. I don't care that we're in the play-in. Just tip the ball up, see what happens. That's all you can control. It's too stressful thinking about we're trying to dodge a team, lining up, just play the game. We'll see what happens."
Durant is on record as saying that Irving, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, does not deserve more blame for this season, no matter how it will shake out. But the reality is that the Nets would likely have a much different record if Irving had been a full-time player from the start of the season. The Nets originally did not want Irving as just a part-time player, but reversed course after a COVID-19 outbreak in December. Irving made his debut in a Jan. 5 win over the Indiana Pacers.
"The reason why we're so confident is we've been in so many different scenarios on different teams," Irving said after Saturday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks, while discussing why he and Durant remain steadfast in the belief that the Nets can still hit their stride. "And we've been able to learn how to get the best out of people, and how people get the best out of us.
"And the way that we respond in situations like this is we just go home and get ready for the next game -- but the mental focus is on a different level, and in order for us to be a great team, everybody has to have that same mental focus."
Durant echoed a similar sentiment after Monday's practice.
"You can talk about expectations and what you see this team on paper -- I always said this, but every day matters," Durant said. "You want to be a champion every second that you step on the floor, not just when we play a good team or the playoffs coming up. I think being a champion is in the habits and the work ethic, the care that you have for the game. It's a lot of champions out here that never won a ring, but they approach their work that way.
"So that's how I felt our team needed to approach this season, and guys have, but some stuff that's out of individuals' control is the reason why we're in certain positions. So that doesn't stop you from having the championship mentality every day as an individual."