PHOENIX — Watching the Nets struggle on offense without the injured Kevin Durant has been maddening, even more so because microwave scorer T.J. Warren has been shackled by a minutes limit.
And nobody has been more galled than Warren himself. Even with Durant and Kyrie Irving both out Tuesday, Warren was limited to just 24:07 in a loss to the woebegone Spurs. He still put up a team-high 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting but was left with the distinct impression he could have done more.
“Yeah, it’s super-frustrating, trust me,” Warren told The Post. “It’s trying to find a balance [between] being out two years but also knowing that I feel like I can carry the load a little bit during those long stretches.
“But just got to put my trust and training staff’s hands. … They’ve been doing a great job with me, got me back to this point, and just got to see the bigger picture, end of the season, playoffs, playing at my best, hopefully off the minute restriction.”
Those aforementioned two years — plus a looming glut of games — are why the Nets are treating Warren with kid gloves. But with an 0-3 record since Durant sprained his right MCL, and with the four-time scoring champ not slated to be reevaluated until early next week, will those gloves have to come off?
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Warren is not only a position fit for power forward, but his three-level scoring is much-needed in Durant’s absence. Warren averaged 19.6, 18.0 and 19.8 points from 2017-20 before missing the past two campaigns due to stress fractures and multiple surgeries.
Hence, he is having his playing time closely monitored by the Nets, who bring a three-game skid into their game Thursday against the Suns.
“I’m frustrated with the minute restriction, but just understanding that it’s a bigger goal towards the end of the season, playoffs, more important. But every game I feel like is important and definitely want to contribute as much as I can,” Warren told The Post. “But I trust the training staff. [We] kind of bump heads a lot with it. Try to keep my head up and stay positive.”
Warren has averaged 12.5 points over the past 12 games on 50.8 percent shooting and 39.4 percent from behind the arc in 23.4 minutes. He has been even better in the past seven, bumping those numbers to 13.0 points on 52.1 percent shooting. But coach Jacque Vaughn and the performance team — perhaps not in that order — have limited the veteran forward to a scant 21.9 minutes per game in the past seven.
“It’s really going to be a challenge for us, because you look at last week: We had two games in seven days, we were supposed to take care of business and have a lot of juice and effort [Tuesday]. We didn’t take care of business,” Vaughn said. “Now we come [to Phoenix] and you’ve got three in four [days], so you’ve got to think about that, what that looks like on a back-to-back with Phoenix and Utah.
“So I’m really trying to get our guys to concentrate on today. … If Phoenix presents itself and T.J. can play more minutes, then we’ll try and win that game with T.J. But I’ll be smart about it long-term. I don’t want to put guys in position where we don’t have them for the stretch. Again, we’re going to try and use everybody in Phoenix and try to get a win.”
Nobody knows what Warren will have left in the tank for the stretch run. But he has shown he can handle significant minutes for now without diminishing returns.
In the past 12 games, he has averaged 15.3 points whenever he has topped 23 minutes. And in the past seven, he has averaged 18.0 any time he has hit that mark.
“We want guys just to use their minutes to play as hard as possible,” Vaughn said. “I told the guys, ‘Don’t play like you’re playing 30 minutes, play like you’re playing 15 minutes.’ Give that effort, give that discipline, and we’ll build from there.”
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