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Love them or hate them, Kevin Durant and the Nets are NBA’s most compelling team – Boston Herald

It was just eight months ago that the Nets were getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Celtics. At the end, let’s face it, it looked as if the Celtics could have finished the job with a wet mop. Ben Simmons wasn’t playing, and no one was sure he would play again. Kyrie was Kyrie, after a season he helped sabotage in the first place, and spectacularly, by not getting vaccinated for COVID.

And even after all that, the Brooklyn Nets were just getting started. All of a sudden Kevin Durant, the best basketball player to ever play for a New York City team (sorry, Clyde, sorry Doc) didn’t want to play in Brooklyn anymore. He wanted to leave the Nets the way he left the Warriors after going to them for easy rings.

Then Kyrie got himself jammed up, and big time, on social media because of a wingnut racist movie. Then he did what he often does and got himself into more trouble by talking about all that, and before he was good and suspended. Steve Nash wasn’t suspended. He was fired. And put me down as somebody who thought at the time the Nets had become the richest and most talented clown car in the NBA; that it was time for Durant and for the Nets to move on from Kyrie Irving, as much talent as he has, and the way he can sometimes make his game look ridiculously easy.

Now here they are.

Here are your Brooklyn Nets, playing as well as any team in the league, making a run at the first-place-in-the-conference Celtics. They may be a team that basketball fans outside New York City — and frequently within the city limits — love to hate. But they have once again made themselves a team to watch, and perhaps the team to watch right now in professional basketball.

At a time when their league very much needs a compelling narrative, the Nets are it, like it or not. Hate them or not. Not only is Durant here, he is as much of a star as he has ever been, in the thick of the MVP conversation with Luka and Jokic and Giannis and Ja. LeBron James, who turned 38 on Friday, is still playing like a huge star himself. But he is with the Lakers. And as much as a joke as the Nets had turned themselves into a couple of months ago, here is something that is no joke:

You better believe LeBron would rather be where Durant is right now, which means the Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y., than where he is.

Can the Nets sustain this for six more months? Who knows? Never forget that they’re still the Nets, and that Kyrie is still Kyrie, and that it could take hardly anything to get them off the rails.

For now, though, they have shocked all of us who wrote them off. Jacque Vaughn, who replaced Nash, came into this weekend with a 21-7 record as Nets coach. Since taking over, no coach in the league has done a better job than Vaughn has. He has done what top managers in sports are supposed to do, especially when they have the kind of talent in the room that the Nets have, which means he has gotten them to play together.

And, over the din that has so often defined the Nets of Kevin and Kyrie, he has gotten them to listen, and buy in. And actually be accountable.

“It is belief and that’s a huge part of the NBA,” Vaughn said the other day. “Is the confidence and belief, no matter what situation you can come out on the other side.”

For now — and you always have to qualify things that way with this particular team, never looking too far ahead — he has got the Nets to shut up and just ball.

It all starts with Durant, because that is exactly what he has done, after all the drama of the summer, all of which was self-generated. He has played at this extraordinarily high level, as the players around him, Kyrie included, have raised their own levels. Somehow, after everything he has done in the pros, after the Achilles injury and all the rest of it, he is still just 34 years old. He is playing younger than that this season, accepting the responsibilities that come with the stage he chose when he took the Nets’ money.

There are a lot of differences, of course, between the Nets and the Knicks. But ultimately, and even with Kyrie playing for the Nets and not the Knicks, the difference between the two teams is Durant. He is one of Those Guys. The Knicks don’t have anybody close to him. They are a famous name still. They play in what everybody considers the world’s most famous arena, the Facial Recognition Garden. They charge star prices. They just don’t have a real star. And don’t have one in sight. There was a point when everybody seemed to think that Durant would choose them. He didn’t.

Now Durant has his chance to set his own historical legacy once and for all, as much as he believes he did that with the Warriors. But the Warriors already had Steph Curry when Durant got there. And Draymond. The other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson. They had won before Durant got there, and then they won after Durant left, and that will always be the basketball fact of things. He was going to come to Brooklyn and show that he could win anywhere, the way LeBron already had. Somehow, after the train-wreck beginning to his team’s season, he has that chance now. In all the big ways, he can make himself even bigger than he already is. Be one of Those Guys, not just for now, but for all times.

It is that way even when the fourth quarter belongs to the Other Guy — Kyrie — the way it did the other night against Atlanta.

“It’s always fun [watching Irving get hot],” Durant said after that one. “So many people love what Kyrie brings to the table, but in the fourth quarter that’s really his time. We sit back and let him go to work, and he made big shot after big shot. We just try to feed off his energy and make plays on the defensive end as well.”

Do I think they can do it up, and in lights, and go all the way in 2023? I don’t. But guess what? I didn’t think they could end 2022 the way they have, either.

DON’T BLAME COHEN IF METS WALK FROM CORREA DEAL, DABOLL’S GIANT SHAKEUP & HAPPY NEW YEAR …

Good for Steve Cohen for taking a big swing with Carlos Correa, and good for Scott Boras for calling an audible when the Giants got wobbly after Correa’s physical.

But now that the Mets have seen whatever the Giants saw, you can understand why they have pumped the brakes on staying with their original offer of 12 years, and $350 million.

If you think Cohen is going to get played here by the media, think again.

And if Boras is so worried about losing face that he’s still stuck on the original offer, the Mets ought to walk away.

Understand something:

The Giants were desperate to make a big splash, because they had just been first runner-up with Aaron Judge.

They had a need for a star and they had money to spend.

Did I mention they were desperate?

They were still willing to walk away from Correa.

It is why this notion from Boras that there are no medical issues with Correa, none at all, nothing to see here, move along to the press conference, is simply Boras being a fabulist with this much money on the table for one of his clients.

If Boras thinks there is a similar deal out there after the Giants did walk away and the Mets are balking at giving Correa this much money and this many years, then he absolutely ought to go find that deal.

It was all such a great, middle-of-the-night story when Cohen swooped in the way he did.

Now the situation on the ground has changed, more than somewhat.

There isn’t a Mets fan I know who doesn’t want Correa playing alongside Francisco Lindor.

And that’s the way this still might play out.

But if it doesn’t, don’t blame Cohen.

Our own Giants might be back in the postseason by Sunday night, and raise a hand if you saw that coming with Coach Daboll’s team before the season started.

Daboll came in here and shook everything up the way Rex Ryan once did with the Jets.

My friend Barry Stanton is right when he says that Buffalo deserves whatever joy the Bills can bring them over the rest of this football season.

The way things are going with this whole facial recognition thing at Jimmy Dolan’s Garden, I’m thinking they’d pick me up out front as soon as I was out of the taxi.

You know why it’s hard to root for the Knicks and Rangers sometimes?

Because an autocrat like Dolan is the big boss of the place, still working off meathead public relations.

It’s hilarious watching the TV cameras do everything except go black not to show you how many empty seats there were at some of these early bowl games.

The Jets aren’t going to lose to Geno out in Seattle, are they?

If Nick Foles is the answer for the Colts, what’s the question?

Just remember how close the Nets were to passing over Jacque Vaughn for Ime Udoka.

In case you didn’t already know, these three iconic American athletes share Dec. 30 as a birthday:

Sandy Koufax, Lafayette High School, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tiger Woods.

LeBron James.

Somebody please explain to me why they play the college football semifinals on New Year’s Eve.

Anybody?

Happy New Year.

* * *

James Patterson’s new novel with Mike Lupica, “The House of Wolves,” goes on sale Jan. 9.

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