Nets shock defending champion Bucks behind Kyrie Irving’s 38 ... and Kevin Durant is coming back soon

This is why the Nets — despite the ongoing circus in Brooklyn — still have a shot to win it all.

With no Kevin Durant (MCL sprain), Joe Harris (ankle rehab) or Ben Simmons (back soreness/re-conditioning), the Nets went toe-to-toe with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks behind Kyrie Irving’s big night and came out on top, 126-123, for one of the few signature victories of a discombobulated season.

The inspiring Nets performance leaves one lasting thought for the remainder of the season:

Damn, this team could be really good when they get all their players back on the floor.

Good health has evaded this Nets team all season, and continuity went out the window when 13 players entered the COVID-19 health and safety protocols in mid-December. Not to mention the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving can only play in road games due to New York City’s vaccine mandate.

Irving’s performance on the road puts more pressure on Mayor Adams to loosen the mandate that prevents the Nets’ star from performing at Barclays Center: He scored 38 points and danced around the Bucks’ defense all night long.

The Nets trotted out their 34th starting lineup of the season in Milwaukee on Saturday. They will undoubtedly hit No. 35 next week when Durant returns to the lineup.

Yet there they were, handing it to the loaded defending champions on their home floor ― just like they battled to the end against the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns shorthanded during their recent five-game road trip.

Except this time, they sealed the deal, and had it not been for Bobby Portis’ lights-out shooting, the Nets may have come out with an even more convincing victory.

Portis made his best Splash Brother impression and shot 8-of-13 from downtown. As the Bucks’ small-ball center, he took advantage of LaMarcus Aldridge’s slow feet and spaced the floor while Andre Drummond protected the paint. Portis’ performance was a campaign for more minutes for Blake Griffin, who did not play and is one of the Nets’ most versatile defensive options at the five.

Despite Portis’ hot shooting, the Nets found ways to respond time and time again. Brooklyn got one of its most well-rounded games of the season: Irving led the charge, but three other starters scored in double figures.

Seth Curry hit four threes and scored 19 points, Andre Drummond added 17 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block, and Bruce Brown scored 15 points and shot 3-of-5 from downtown. Brown hit a three with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter to give the Nets a 118-116 lead. And the Nets got another 28 points off the bench, including six from Goran Dragic, the veteran guard who made his Nets debut in Milwaukee on Thursday.

Which brings us back to the upcoming weeks, and why there’s still optimism, even if it’s fleeting, for the Nets to make a championship push.

Durant is expected to rejoin the rotation in the upcoming week. He hasn’t played since spraining the MCL in his left knee in an on-court incident with Bruce Brown in a Jan. 15 matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, but is expected to return at some point next week: either one of the two upcoming matchups against the Toronto Raptors, or the ensuing showdown against the Miami Heat.

Simmons is experiencing back soreness, and could be out a few more weeks, but Durant’s return will give the Nets the boost they’ve needed since he got hurt. And Harris has ramped up his practice speed and is back to “playing,” said Nash. After months of uncertainty regarding the possibility of a second surgery, the sharpshooter could be rejoining the team sooner than later.

Yet with all those talented players watching from the sidelines, the Nets were able to steal one in Milwaukee. When the Nets finally reach their fully healthy form, there’s no telling where their ceiling ultimately stands.