Caris LeVert and Kevin Durant were already close friends when they became Nets teammates over the summer. Their relationship dates to 2016, when LeVert had his third foot operation in less than two years just as he was leaving Michigan for the N.B.A. draft.
Durant and LeVert had sustained similar injuries — a Jones fracture — and had each turned to Martin O’Malley, the Nets’ team doctor. They were both clients of the agency Roc Nation, and Durant reached out to LeVert to offer words of encouragement.
It was a special moment. In high school, LeVert was known by the nickname “Baby Durant.”
“He’s like a big brother to me,” LeVert said of Durant, who is not expected to play this season as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. “He’s given me some pretty good advice over the years. At the same time, he lets me be my own man. He’s a great teammate. He always tells me to seize every moment.”
LeVert has taken Durant’s advice to heart since returning from a November injury to his right thumb that caused him to miss nearly eight weeks. On Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in just his second game back, LeVert drove to the basket with confidence for the Nets, his forays into the paint often resulting in easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
The 25-year-old combo guard, who has been coming off the bench as part of his slow reintegration into the lineup, scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and ended the night with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Down the stretch, he converted on a putback and a 3-point attempt, and it appeared the Nets were going to secure their first victory since Dec. 21.
Yet Brooklyn faltered once again, its 7-point, fourth-quarter lead vanishing after several empty possessions in crunchtime, including a pair of missed shots by LeVert. The Thunder rallied behind the veteran point guard Chris Paul, and the game headed to overtime. LeVert headed to the bench, having played only 22 minutes — the maximum of his team-imposed time limit.
The Nets mustered just 2 points in the extra session and fell to the Thunder, 111-103, pushing their losing streak to seven games. LeVert could only watch from the sidelines.
“That’s how we operate,” Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Thinking about his long-term health and our long-term plan, and sticking with that plan. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, let’s go win this game.’ I think you’d regret it if something ever happened.”
Said LeVert: “I’m a competitor. I want to play. But I trust the coaches and the staff. There’s always another game.”
The Nets, at 16-20, have a little more than half of their season left, and perhaps more if they can stay in position for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They are in eighth place with 46 games to go and no clear return date for their best player, Kyrie Irving, who has been out since November with an injured shoulder. The teams just below the Nets in the standings — the Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons — also have problems to sort out.
“There’s no pressure at all,” LeVert said. “I just have a lot of fun playing the game. It always sucks to go out with an injury, but being back just gives me so much joy. I feel like I’m right where I used to be — it’s just about knocking some of the rust off.”
LeVert’s significant injury history led to his falling to the Nets as the 20th overall selection in the 2016 draft, three months after he had a foot operation. Injuries have plagued him ever since. He dislocated his right foot in November 2018 in what at first looked like a gruesome end to his season, but he returned three months later. Over the last two seasons, LeVert has missed a combined 67 games.
When healthy, though, LeVert is a difference-maker, because he can create his own shot, defend on the perimeter and facilitate an offense — especially with the often-anemic second unit. He had a breakthrough performance in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Philadelphia 76ers, averaging 21 points on 49.3 percent shooting.
LeVert, who has signed a three-year, $52.5 million extension with the Nets that begins next season, was averaging 16.8 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game this season before getting hurt again.
LeVert said his thumb had actually been bothering him since he “banged it in training camp” before the start of last season. He played through the pain before disaster struck on Nov. 10 in Phoenix, where he jammed the thumb on a back cut.
Initially, the injury was diagnosed as a sprain, but an X-ray and a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed ligament damage. LeVert had his operation on Nov. 14 and was expected to miss four to six weeks. He returned last Saturday, scoring 13 points in 16 minutes against the Toronto Raptors, and sat the next game, on Monday against the Orlando Magic, for injury maintenance.
His scoring capabilities were sorely missed during his 24-game absence between November and this month. The Nets went 12-12 but ranked just 26th in offensive efficiency over that span, averaging only 104.9 points per 100 possessions. By contrast, the top 10 teams all averaged at least 110.0 points per 100 possessions.
The Nets’ offensive struggles also stemmed from the absence of Irving, who hasn’t played since Nov. 14. Irving received a cortisone shot for his injured shoulder on Dec. 24 and might need a potentially season-ending operation, depending on how his shoulder responds to the treatment. The Nets faced heavy criticism during their recent skid for not being transparent about Irving’s injury status.
Irving’s spot in the starting lineup has gone to Spencer Dinwiddie, who has averaged 24.8 points and 6.9 assists in his stead. But Dinwiddie has struggled with his shot of late, and his supporting cast has been largely ineffective. Since Irving went down, the Nets have shot a league-worst 31.5 percent from 3-point territory.
“Our offense is not where it needs to be,” Atkinson said on Tuesday. “And it’s my job to find a solution.
LeVert remains confident that the beleaguered, depleted Nets can right their ship.
“I believe in every single guy in this locker room, and I feel like we can turn it around,” LeVert said. “We’ve been in the last couple games. I think it’s just about believing. The mind-set has been ‘Let’s not lose this game’ as opposed to ‘Let’s win this game.’ That’s a huge thing to me. Once we get over that hump, we’ll be fine.”
And as Durant always encourages, LeVert is trying to seize the moment instead of looking ahead to what the team can be next season, when both Durant and Irving are expected to be fully healthy.
“I’m locked in on the present right now,” LeVert said. “That’s going to be really exciting. But I’m just trying to help the team in any way I can.”