Welcome to the 2022 NBA season, when what happens off the court is more polarizing than the results of an actual game.
Superstar point guard Kyrie Irving arrived at Barclays Center midway through the second quarter of the Nets’ 110-107 win against the Knicks on Sunday. Irving walked in through the southeast visiting tunnel wearing an indistinguishable long, off-white tribal-patterned peacoat that read “States, Worlds & Empires” on the front. It was an outfit that could have been outdone only by the late Suge Knight, who wore all-red on almost all occasions.
Irving walked towards the basketball court he’s torched so many times before the COVID-19 pandemic, made a left at the stanchion, just a step from the hardwood, and walked up the left side of the arena, through a crowd that chanted “Free Kyrie !” as he approached his seat. He made a pit-stop near half court, shaking hands and hugging several people sitting courtside. Irving then took his seat — at Nets owner Joe Tsai’s reserved spots closest to the southwest tunnel — and sat down before walking over the words “Brooklyn Nets” painted on the baseline of the court as he followed his teammates into the locker room at halftime.
A similar scene also played out the day before, when Irving sat courtside for the ACC Tournament matchup between his alma mater, Duke, and Virginia Tech at Barclays Center on Saturday.
Irving (unvaccinated, inligible) cannot play because of the private sector vaccine mandate that restricts indoor professional athletes who work in the City from performing at Barclays Center or Madison Square Garden. Mayor Adams repealed the Key2NYC mandate on March 7, allowing Irving to attend games as a spectator, but the additional mandate prevents the superstar guard from helping his teammates on the floor.
And while the players undoubtedly saw Irving in the arena and enjoyed his presence in the locker room at halftime, they felt his absence on the court as they struggled to create true separation from a lesser opponent.
Kevin Durant played 43 of a possible 48 minutes, scoring 53 points on 19-of-37 shooting from the field — the second time he’s scored 50 or more points this season (the first was in Detroit against the Pistons), while Irving accomplished the feat just once this season in Charlotte. For reference to how much more Durant is needed when he’s the only star available for the Nets: he played just 32 minutes in the Nets’ blowout victory over the 76ers on Thursday and has played 40 or more minutes just nine times this season.
Adding to the Nets’ list of absences, the team scratched Seth Curry moments before tip-off with left ankle soreness. Curry has been the Nets’ third-most reliable scorer after Durant and Irving. Without him, the Nets inserted sixth-man Patty Mills back into the starting lineup and leaned heavily on Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond for easy offense at the rim.
Durant hit a three to give the Nets a 106-103 lead with under a minute left in the fourth quarter. He then hit a pair of free throws to give the Nets a three-point lead with under seven seconds to go.
The Nets will need more heroes from their superstar forward if they’re going to be successful in their late-season push.
Luckily for them, Durant is capable of shouldering a load. He’s done it for the Thunder, he’s done it for the Warriors, he’s done it for Team USA and he’ll have to do it some more in 10 of the Nets’ final 14 games if they’re want to make it to the play -in tournament pursuit.