Kyrie Irving never changed his mind. In the end, he didn’t have to; he just had to wait long enough for other people to change theirs.
Five months after his choice not to take the COVID-19 vaccine resulted in his banishment from Brooklyn, and nearly three months after the harsh realities of the roster prompted the Nets to reinstate him as a road dog, Irving , still unvaccinated, will be able to play home games again. New York Mayor Eric Adams should ‘turn the tide [city’s] private sector vaccination mandate specifically for artists and athletes in local venues. The reversal, which comes amid a 31% increase in COVID cases in New York over the past two weeks, does not extend to non-artists, employees of private companies and municipal employees who had to lose their jobs for choosing not to get vaccinated – the people Irving said he stood with when he stepped down – but it would bring Kyrie back to the Barclays Center pitch in Sunday, when Brooklyn hosts the Hornets.
So ends months and months of storm and stress for Brooklyn, which has gone from title favorite to play-in hopeful. Irving’s choice to make himself ineligible for 53 of the Nets’ 72 games isn’t the only reason the team enters the final two and a half weeks with a disappointing 38-35 – it’s easy to forget, considering everything that happened, that Brooklyn was 27-15 when Durant sprained the MCL – and that wasn’t the only factor in dissolving their intended championship triumvirate. It played a part in both, though. The question now: what role can Kyrie play in pulling the Nets out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves?
When he’s been on the court this season, Irving has been every ounce of the otherworldly offensive force he was when he earned All-NBA honors in 2020-21, averaging 28, 5 points, 5.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. He’s shooting just under 53 percent from 2 points, on one of the toughest inside shooting regimes you’ll ever see from a guard. He throws more than 10 3-pointers per 100 possessions and breaks through nearly 44% of them — Steph/Klay/Ray territory — and shoots 91% from the foul line. Irving is also a well-used ball handler, driver and entertainer, deploying perhaps the best grip in basketball history to weave through traffic in advantageous areas, while maintaining a microscopic turnover rate. .
Also note: it is on the fucking fire at present. Irving is averaging 38.7 points per game on an absurd 58/55/89 shooting in his six appearances over the past month – a streak that includes a 38-point devastation of defending champion Bucks, the 50-game most points in NBA history against the Hornets, a career-high and Nets franchise-high 60 points on 31 shots in 35 minutes against the Magic, and 43 with eight cents in a loss to the Grizzlies Wednesday. Whatever your feelings about Kyrie’s time away from the team, he’s been sharper than the steely Hattori Hanzo when he comes between the lines.
It remains to be seen if Kyrie will be able to sustain that type of full-tilt bombardment once he plays every game rather than in shorter bursts with longer rest periods, but even a quieter version of the numbers. Seven-time All-Star. to augment all aspects of Brooklyn’s offense. Asked earlier this season what Kyrie the Nets lacked most, head coach Steve Nash offered reporters the blinding but no less accurate answer: “His talent. He adds things that we’re thin on: penetration, shot creation, shooting, spacing and all those things he brings to the table. And in doing so, crucially, he eases Durant’s creative burden.
When they played together this season, KD’s usage rate dropped almost 6 points, and his true shooting percentage soared to a ridiculous .673 – the kind of minimal efficiency you usually see in the big boys. men on screen and diving. who only have to complete layups and dunks. Even without James Harden, when Durant and Irving shared the floor, the Nets absolutely incinerated defenses to the tune of 130.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass – over 11 points higher than Brooklyn’s 20-21 offensive efficiency mark, which was already the highest in NBA history.
Perhaps even more important for the Nets: Kyrie can carry the offense when Durant needs a break, creating scoring opportunities without needing anyone else to set him up – or, really, do a lot more things to get out of his way.
In the minutes Irving has played without Durant or Harden this season, Brooklyn has scored 115.4 of 100 points, according to Cleaning the Glass, just below what the NBA doesn’t have. 3 offense succeeded all season. Defensive woes built into the structure of most non-KD rosters mean these Kyrie-led groups have only broken even, but if Brooklyn destroys opponents with both stars on the ground and when Durant is flying solo, hovering while seated isn’t so bad – and it’s a whole lot better than getting blitzed nearly 12 points out of 100 with no stars on the ground.
It’s a transformative infusion of offense, one that could dramatically improve Brooklyn’s playoff run, now that Irving will be available for all Game. The Nets enter Thursday’s action in eighth place in the East, 2.5 games behind the Raptors for the no. 7 spots and 3.5 games behind the injured Cavs and battling for sixth place. Toronto and Cleveland have stricter closing times than Brooklyn; Could doubling Kyrie’s appearances, combined with a friendly and home run, allow the Nets to overtake one (or more) of the teams ahead of them? (Brooklyn and Toronto have split their season series, and Brooklyn has a 2-1 advantage over Cleveland; Nets-Cavs on Friday, April 8 could be a huge Game.)
Closing a 3.5 game gap in two weeks is not easy. The odds are Cleveland will stay put, clinging to sixth place, while Toronto and Brooklyn face off in the play-in, with the winner heading straight to a first-round matchup with the East no. 2 seeds. It would really be really to be in the Nets’ best interest to play for the past two weeks to try and ensure they finish seventh rather than eighth, as that would mean the playoff would take place in Brooklyn, where Irving can now play, rather than Toronto, the only remaining city in the NBA where he still can’t.
Beating the Raptors without Irving wouldn’t be impossible; not much is when you employ Kevin Durant. It would be more difficult, however. So, incidentally, you’d have to go through three seeds – a combination of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston and Miami, most likely – to get out of the East, just to end up facing one of the monsters at the top of the league. ‘Where is. Like, say, the Grizzlies, who celebrated Kyrie’s 30th birthday on Wednesday and his impending return to full-time employment by parrying 78 points from the two Brooklyn greats and losing 132 of their own…without Ja Morant.
Nash attributed the loss in part to a lack of chemistry. “It’s a new group. I think we are still learning from each other,” he told reporters. “It was a great experience for us. That’s how teams are going to beat us. … It’s a lesson. It’s a chance for us to see what the playoffs look like. The worry, though , is that it’s too late for those Nets who are adapting and starting to learn the necessary lessons.
Irving and Durant made a grand total of eight appearances together this season. Kyrie barely played with Seth Curry, another vital offensive play returning from injury; it is still extremely unclear whether Ben Simmons is set to return to the pitch. The most frequently used five-man roster on the Nets that features Irving also included the late Harden; no. 2 recorded all 38 minutes together. This is really not a deep reservoir to dip into when you’re in the guts of a game to win against the kind of really good opponents Brooklyn will have to beat to survive and advance.
Maybe the Nets won’t need that kind of reserve; perhaps the talent of its two best stars, with the support of Patty Mills, Bruce Brown and Co., will suffice. At this point, it will have to be. The time to develop cohesion, continuity and backlash has already come and gone, with Kyrie refusing to budge until the world around him does, and thus missing three-quarters of Brooklyn’s games. It’s not enough as simple as saying Kyrie got the Nets into this mess, so now he has to get them out of there… but that’s not either do not this.
Whether Brooklyn finally becomes the true title contender everyone predicted or dies sooner than expected will likely depend on what difference Kyrie can make and what one of the sport’s greatest showmen can deliver under the brightest lights and on the biggest stage. After months of drama, it’s still Kyrie Irving. As if it could have been anything else.