A get-right win can work wonders on the right team. Two such wins in a row can make a team feel invincible.
That’s how the Nets feel after back-to-back decisive victories. They succumbed to Jayson Tatum’s 54-point masterpiece in Boston, but responded first with a double-digit victory over the Charlotte Hornets, then with an embarrassment of the entire city of Philadelphia in their rivalry game against James Harden’s 76ers.
The Nets walked into Philly’s Wells Fargo Center with a laser focus and emerged 29-point victors over a purported championship contender. It was a signature victory that underscored Brooklyn’s still-legitimate claim as championship favorites, even more so now that they feel they’ve hit their stride.
“In a sense, we see this as our first three games of the season, meaning we’ve got the majority of our guys together on the floor from this past road trip — Boston, Charlotte and in Philly,” said veteran guard Patty Mills . “So, in a way, we’re at a point now where I think that we’re trying to figure out what really works for us and keep on trying to improve on those things and clean up some stuff. Maybe the mindset is that we’re in Game 3 of the season and let’s keep growing from there and get (Ben Simmons) on the floor.”
The common denominator in those last three games, however, is Kyrie Irving, the unvaccinated superstar guard inligible to play at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden due to his decision to not get vaccinated and now, New York City’s private sector vaccine mandate. The Nets are 4-2 in games Irving and Durant have played together this season. There’s a chance they would be 5-1 had he not succumbed to the emotions that got the best of him in his subpar performance returning to the TD Garden, where Boston fans booed him relentlessly.
And now the Nets embark on a 15-game stretch, of which Irving — under current vaccine mandate rules — is only eligible to play in four. It’s a reality check for a team that just played so well with their star: Irving will play again on March 15 in Orlando against the Magic, then watch from the bench until March 23 in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
“We’ve just got to keep building and find ways to have carry-over from what we’ve done so well the past three games, essentially,” Mills said. “Keep pounding that rock with what we’ve done well. It shouldn’t matter who’s on the floor and who isn’t. I think the principles of what we’ve done really well the last few games is what we’ve got to stick (to) and grind over the course of these last 15 games before the playoffs.”
In many ways, it’s more of the same. Players in and out of the rotation have been nothing new, and with Simmons’ return date still unclear, it’s a situation the Nets will grapple with for the rest of the season.
It’s why the Nets, a championship contender riding high after two huge victories, now must search for ways to win when Irving is taken off the floor.
“That’s definitely a challenge, it’s been a challenge for us the whole entire year,” reserve big man Nic Claxton said after Saturday’s practice. “Hopefully we can get him back within the next couple of weeks or so, but guys just have to step up.”