NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving can play home games now, so the Brooklyn Nets might be good enough to win the NBA championship.
Or they might be flawed enough to miss the playoffs entirely.
The exemption given by Mayor Eric Adams of the vaccine mandate that made Irving eligible to play in New York City should make the Nets even more explosive, perhaps too potent to be stopped four times even by the toughest defensive teams. With Irving and Kevin Durant together, the Nets can pile up the points.
They also give them up in bunches.
Take Wednesday night in Memphis, for example. Irving poured in 43 points and Durant had 35. Yet, the Nets lost because they surrendered a whopping 132 points to a Grizzlies team that didn’t even have its best player, All-Star guard Ja Morant.
It’s games like that which make the Nets, who hope to still add Ben Simmons to improve their leaky defense, the most intriguing team in the league in the final days of the regular season.
They could win it all. They could lose once in the play-in tournament and be eliminated.
“If they can ever line it up man, where both dudes are playing and playing at a high level, it’s going to be very, very scary, especially when Ben plays,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said.
“If” is an apt assessment of the Nets.
An everyday Irving provides a big boost. But Simmons still isn’t even practicing because of a herniated disk in his back, and who knows how much a player even of his ability can help after sitting out all season.
Irving has always been a spectacular offensive force, almost unmatched in his ability to create shots off his dazzling dribbling packages. His performance this season seems even more remarkable given how difficult it is to keep a rhythm with his inability to play at home. The game Wednesday was the first time he’d played in nine days since he had a career-high 60 on March 15 in Orlando.
Had the mandate remained in place, Irving would have been eligible to play in only two of the Nets’ final nine games, with six scheduled at home and one across town against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — in a league where 97% of players did — has left Brooklyn in a precarious position. The Nets are only eighth in the Eastern Conference, probably needing to advance out of the play-in to make the postseason. And if the current standings hold, they’d have their first game in that tournament in Toronto, where Irving wouldn’t be eligible to play.
Even if they do advance, they are destined to be locked into one of the lowest seeds in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoffs, forced to open against a top team such as defending NBA champion Milwaukee, Miami or surging Boston.
And it seems reasonable that Irving’s decision contributed at least somewhat to James Harden’s frustration with the Nets, which led them to trade the three-time scoring champion and former NBA MVP to Philadelphia in February in the deal for Simmons. Brooklyn also got back Andre Drummond and Seth Curry in the trade and both players have become starters.
But by changing up their roster and having Irving only available occasionally to play, the Nets haven’t built the continuity that contenders crave. They have used a franchise-record 41 different starting lineups and even coach Steve Nash concedes no matter how much talent his team has, it doesn’t have time.
“We’ve talked about it before but our runway is short here, so we’ve got to take advantage of these days,” Nash said last week.
The Nets will never be able to have the team that was considered the favorite entering this season. Harden is gone and Joe Harris won’t be back. The NBA’s leading 3-point shooter two of the last three seasons had season-ending ankle surgery.
But they should no longer be the club that has often been a pushover in its own home. The Nets are just 16-19 at Barclays Center, where some teams recently have sent multiple defenders at Durant to make him pass the ball to teammates they don’t fear.
Now, whenever the Nets play at home they will be better.
Time will tell if they will be good enough to win a title and not just games.
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