The Nets rested every key rotation player — with the exception of Yuta Watanabe and Edmond Sumner — in the second game of back to back against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.
Against a mostly healthy Indiana team, the Nets were significant underdogs.
But Brooklyn’s second and third unit stole a 136-133 victory over a healthy, surging Pacers team at the Gainsbridge Fieldhouse Saturday. The Nets continue to march up the Eastern Conference standings. They have won 10 of their last 13 games and rank fourth in the East behind only Boston, Milwaukee and Cleveland.
Brooklyn’s success has directly correlated with Jacque Vaughn’s promotion to head coach. The Nets began the season 2-5 under Nash. They are 13-7 under Vaughn.
The proof was in the pudding against a Pacers team that has exceeded expectations this season.
The Nets desperately needed to rest their key rotation players, and Saturday’s matchup in Indiana was the perfect time to do it.
Kevin Durant leads the NBA in minutes and Royce O’Neale checks in second. Kyrie Irving is averaging 37 minutes per game, and the Nets have a handful of key rotation players — Seth Curry (ankle), TJ Warren (foot), Joe Harris (ankle), Ben Simmons (calf) — recovering from recent surgeries.
Saturday marked the team’s first blatant case of load management, a necessity for teams posturing for a deep playoff run even if the league frowns upon the practice.
The Nets listed Durant as out due to right knee injury management, Irving out with left adductor tightness and O’Neale out for personal reasons.
It’s all part of an effort, as the team has emphasized, to reach peak health for the end of the regular season into the playoffs. And that load management starts and ends with Durant, the perennial MVP-contending superstar whose shoulders carry the Nets’ championship odds.
Which is why the Nets’ victory over the Pacers was so significant — and so telling.
The Nets grabbed 29 offensive rebounds to Indiana’s seven and 59 total boards to 30. Cam Thomas scored a career-high 33 points. Patty Mills scored 21, Sumner got hot against his former team and scored 20, and Day’Ron Sharpe finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Durant’s legs are priority No. 1 for a Nets team surging after a slow start to the season. He is averaging 30 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game and uses 31% of the team’s offensive possessions.
Only Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo use more, and of those players, only Lillard, 32, is older than 28.
“The minutes are adding up. And I’m not sure where he sits at. I know probably he and Royce are probably top-five or seven or somewhere around there in minutes,” Vaughn said after playing Durant 36 minutes against the Hawks on Friday. “I’ll be honest with you, we will always be smart. I told you: short-term, long-term. I’ll see how they came from this game, but the minutes are adding up. If we could get through tomorrow, the schedule is in our favor to get a little break. I’ll see how these guys feel after this.”
It will be easier for the Nets to better manage Durant’s minutes in the coming weeks. As Vaughn alluded to, Brooklyn’s schedule lightens significantly now that they’ve cleared this back-to-back.
For example, after Saturday’s win over the Pacers and Monday’s game in D.C. against the Washington Wizards, the Nets get three days off before Friday’s trip up north to face the Toronto Raptors. They play in Detroit against the Pistons two days later, then get two more days off before hosting Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors on Dec. 21.
O’Neale has also become an integral piece of the Nets’ rotation as a capable three-and-D wing and complementary ball handler who earned and kept the starting role in Joe Harris’ absence. His minutes spiked when both Harris and Simmons left the lineup due to injury.
“Just cumulative games and minutes he’s played and what we’ve asked him to do,” Vaughn said. “Whether that’s guard the best player out there, whether it’s initiate our offense at times, whether it’s rebound the basketball. He’s kind of in that bucket that we talked about earlier with the guys who do need some time off and reduced minutes, and he’s definitely on the list.”
Saturday’s DNP fest was a necessity. It’s a step in prioritizing the long-term vision. That long vision is a championship parade across the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, and that’s not possible if Seven, Eleven and every rotation player one through 10 isn’t healthy at the end of the regular season.