As Kyrie Irving stayed away from his Brooklyn Nets teammates the past three months, he wondered what it would be like to venture out and watch a game like a fan.
“I can’t really go out and watch at a local bar or anything like that,” Irving, who is still not vaccinated against COVID-19, said recently. “I would love to be, ‘OK, [Kevin Durant] hit a shot, let’s [take a shot]’; I’m joking, but just having fun watching it. Sometimes I get to watch it alone and sometimes I get to watch with my family.”
The Nets are in the midst of finding their own balance amid a chaotic time, including Irving’s return for road games after the front office reversed course following a teamwide coronavirus outbreak and Durant’s MCL sprain that has him sidelined for four to six weeks. The slate of games over that period covered nearly 8,000 miles, a rescheduled contest against the Portland Trail Blazers and a glimpse of the best and worst parts of a Nets team that has had its Big Three All-Stars start only one game together this season.
As the Nets (28-16) prepare to face the San Antonio Spurs (8:30 p.m. ET) on Friday, here’s a look back at a wild two-plus weeks for a Steve Nash-coached team searching for its championship chemistry:
Wednesday, Jan. 5 | Indianapolis, Gainbridge Fieldhouse
Before the game, Nets general manager Sean Marks and several staffers watched from the sidelines as Irving took shots from all over the floor. The group looked like nervous yet excited parents, hoping for the best in an unprecedented situation. Irving worked through his pregame routine, unaffected by the surrounding hoopla.
Kyrie getting some shots up prior to his first game of the season. pic.twitter.com/Ue1rsOUOex
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 5, 2022
Irving’s cool confidence led the Nets out of a malaise to a 129-121 Brooklyn victory. Irving scored 22 points in 32 minutes, spoiling an unexpected scene-stealing show from Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, who scored 20 points in just six first-quarter minutes.
“Honestly, it was funny,” James Harden said after the game. “Just ’cause it would happen to us. They had 37 [first-quarter] points and he had 20.”
While Harden spoke in a makeshift press room, Durant and Irving shared a quiet moment in the back. The All-Stars, who celebrated on the floor with a personal handshake after the game, hugged for a moment, enjoying a few minutes of solitude away from the cameras as Irving waited his turn to speak.
“I’ve had a lot of debuts,” Irving said. “But nothing comes close to this one. It meant a little bit more just because at this stage, taking off eight months, or being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there’s so much uncertainty. … So I went in with just an open mindset just to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win.”
Friday, Jan. 7 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center
Giannis Antetokounmpo and some of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates strolled through the entryway near the floor inside Barclays Center for shootaround while Nets rookie David Duke Jr. discussed his time with Irving so far.
The 22-year-old out of Providence is part of what Nash calls the “stay ready” group — a mixture of young or two-way players who are available for a pickup game at all times. With a veteran-laden roster, the Nets don’t have many formal practices during the season, so this group has been tasked with getting Irving prepared for his return.
That has given Duke an up-close look at what the Nets can be with Irving.
“Each and every single day we played pickup,” Duke told ESPN, “you definitely would walk away with a couple moments throughout the day like, ‘Damn, that was tough. Only he can do that.'”
The perception that Irving doesn’t care about the team because of his decision to not get vaccinated doesn’t match what the young Nets players have seen.
“You can just tell, once he was back that everybody had a different type of confidence or different type of spirit about them knowing that he’s around,” Duke said.
A return to Brooklyn meant Irving’s return to the inactive list, one game after making his season debut. “It’s a mental adjustment more than anything,” Nets veteran Patty Mills said.
Before the Nets’ 121-109 loss to the Bucks, Nash was asked what Brooklyn missed most without Irving. His word proved prescient as the game unfolded.
“His talent,” Nash said. “He adds things that we’re thin at: Penetration, shot creation, shooting, the spacing, and all those things he brings to the table … we wish we had him all the time, but we’re happy that we have him half the time.”
Sunday, Jan. 9 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center
In what had become a familiar scene over the past two weeks, the Nets blew a late lead to an inferior opponent in the San Antonio Spurs. After a Harden layup with 4:59 left in regulation put the Nets up 111-99, they couldn’t close and the Spurs sent the game into overtime.
With Irving unable to participate at home, the Nets turned to Cam Thomas. The 2021 first-round pick had logged 30 minutes through the first four quarters but hadn’t seen the floor in overtime — until Nash sent him back in with 16.1 seconds left. With many in the announced crowd of 15,606 on their feet, Durant was double-teamed and passed to Thomas, who caught the ball on the right, just beyond the 3-point line. The young guard took two quick dribbles and then hit a running floater with 1.4 seconds left, clinching a 121-119 OT win.
Nobody in the Nets organization seemed surprised at Thomas’ moment.
“He just showcased his brilliance,” Durant said. “Making a tough runner, that’s his shot, so glad he knocked that down.”
There were bags scattered all over the Nets’ press conference room. Staffers walked in and out of the area as the team prepared for its flight to Oregon, where the Nets would once again have Irving available.
Monday, Jan. 10 | Portland, Oregon, Moda Center
The oddity of playing on the second night of a cross-country back-to-back, a 3,000-mile travel feat that left many of the Nets players and personnel haggard, was not lost on Brooklyn’s coach or team.
Rookie center Day’Ron Sharpe described the Nets’ itinerary over the past 24 hours.
“Flying to Portland was the longest flight I’ve ever been on,” he said. “I was on the plane going crazy, man. I was like when is this plane ride going to end? But I ain’t never done that, fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, play a back-to-back.”
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 11, 2022
While the Nets got Irving back for the unusual back-to-back, they did not have Harden, who was a late scratch because of a hyperextended knee and was spotted in the media room during halftime eating popcorn and catching some of the College Football Playoff National Championship on TV.
Nash had not wanted to use the long back-to-back as an excuse for his team’s performance, but the coach acknowledged the schedule issues took a toll.
“Guys were gassed tonight, really,” Nash said.
In just his second game of the year, a relatively fresh Irving scored 22 points in 40 minutes. But with Harden already out, Irving had an injury scare of his own. With 5:54 left in regulation, Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little dived for a loose ball and knocked over Irving in the process. Irving stayed on the floor for a few moments after twisting his left ankle, retying his left shoe for more support. After the game, Irving said he would be ready for Wednesday’s game in Chicago, but delivered a message to Little in the process.
“I tried to get out of the way, but I just felt like that was unnecessary, like for him to dive that far away from the ball, I was just trying to get out of the way, but just an unnecessary play,” Irving said.
For his part, Durant wasn’t blaming injuries or the schedule for the 114-108 loss to an also-undermanned Trail Blazers squad. He wanted no part of any excuses for why his team lost.
“It’s a part of the game,” he said. “It’s a part of who we are … I’m not making no excuses about no flights or our schedule. Everyone’s schedule is f—ed up.”
As Durant got up from the podium, he recalled some of the long trips he had as a rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics (2007-08). He offered an honest assessment about the past day and a half — which also could have summed up his and Irving’s tenure with the Nets nicely.
“That was a crazy one,” he said.
Kendrick Perkins goes off on the Brooklyn Nets, particularly James Harden and Kevin Durant, for being “soft” in their treatment of Kyrie Irving this season.
Wednesday, Jan. 12 | Chicago, United Center
The Nets completed their shootaround in advance of the 9 p.m. local start time against the Chicago Bulls, the first tip at that time in the history of the United Center. When asked how Irving and Harden looked during the team’s workout, Nash’s black face mask could not cover his dry sense of humor.
“I thought they were really handsome,” Nash said. “Clothes fit.”
Both players were activated for the game, making it the 15th out of a possible 114 games the Nets’ Big Three would take the court together. Still, Nash wasn’t using the game against the East-leading Bulls as a measuring stick. Brooklyn had entered the game with an 0-8 record against the top four teams in both conferences.
“Our goal is to be ready to beat elite teams in April and May, so we got so much thrown at us, so many guys in and out of the lineup — I think I said before, we’re not in that category yet,” he said. “We got to get there by the end of the season.”
As he had done many times over the years, Drederick Irving was courtside a day after his 56th birthday to watch his son play basketball, sitting alongside a couple of his son’s friends.
When Kyrie knocked down his first basket late in the second quarter after he started the game 0-for-4, Drederick stood up and clapped.
“My dad plays an important role, not just as a father, but just as a mentor in helping me and guiding me through as a man growing up in this society,” Kyrie said after the game. “So basketball is something that we talk about, but it’s not the main thing that we share as two people that are bonded, beyond just father and son. … So seeing him be supportive and the guys recognizing it as well in the locker room, like, ‘Yo, I saw pops sitting courtside’ means a lot to me.”
Durant, Harden and Irving found themselves in the most unlikely of positions as the final minutes ticked off the clock in what was supposed to be a showdown between the East’s two best teams: The bench.
The Nets outscored the Bulls 39-19 in the third quarter, allowing Brooklyn’s Big Three to sit the remainder of the 138-112 victory.
“We talked about that,” Durant said with a chuckle. “You’ve seen me there, but we’re taking an L, we’re down 20, you know what I’m saying? But it was good to get a win and be on the bench cheering the guys on as you’re winning a game. It’s been a rough five, six games for us, but one of these games, it’s good for just the team in general.”
The happiness outside the Nets locker room after their biggest win to date was palpable. But Durant scoffed at the idea the team had paid attention to what the outside world thought.
“We know what we bring to the table and it’s all about us,” Durant said. “But I’m sure people were watching the game tonight.”
The 2014 MVP got up to leave and was reminded that many people around the league watched the Nets’ performance.
“I know,” Durant said with a smirk.
Thursday, Jan. 13 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center
As the Nets’ fourth game in five nights approached against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the lack of sleep had caught up with Nash. He shook his head after he failed to locate a familiar reporter during his pregame conference.
“I know how I feel,” Nash said. “I’m exhausted.
“But these guys are a resilient group — they found a way to give maybe their best performance of the year [in Chicago] after a tough back-to-back and a lot of travel. So we appreciate that they’ve stuck with this and we’ve had a tough time.”
But without Durant and Irving, the Nets lost 130-109 to a Thunder squad that entered the night with a 13-27 record.
As Harden walked to the podium, he proclaimed to everyone within earshot: “Don’t call me tomorrow,” chuckling at the logistical absurdity of the Nets’ past week.
“Tired,” Harden said. “Exhausted. It’s been crazy just ’cause of the COVID … we played so well last night, so we wanted to have some kind of carryover but it just didn’t happen.”
“It’s been a journey. Literally,” Nash added. “This is what we’re dealing with. We’re in a pandemic. We missed some games. We threw a cross country back-to-back in and then come back to a 10 o’clock game in Chicago and fly back to Brooklyn. That’s just the way it is. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us and we recognize what it is, we’re glad to get it behind us and we’re fortunate we won two of the games.”
Harden shook his head and offered his own assessment.
“We go beat San Antonio, we go on the road [to Portland], I don’t play, we lose. We all go to Chicago, we all play, we play like we’re supposed to — tonight [Durant] and Kyrie don’t play, so it’s like I don’t know. I don’t know.”
For the time being, the road will be the best place for the Nets because that means Irving can play.
“Gotta find a way to love it and we’ll persevere and we’ll learn something about ourselves and we’ll grow from it,” Nash said.
Saturday, Jan. 15 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center
Wearing a fan-giveaway Blake Griffin T-shirt from earlier in the season, Nash was asked how he could get his team focused on playing at a high level without Irving.
“My message would be it should be the opposite,” Nash said before the team’s fifth game in seven days. “You have an opportunity at home to play, to play more, to have more responsibility and to prove that we can win when he’s not available. That’s an approach we have to have.”
After resting in Thursday’s loss to the Thunder, Durant looked spry to start Saturday’s game — he racked up 12 points in 12 first-quarter minutes. But with just under six minutes left in the first half, Pelicans forward Herb Jones drove to the basket and collided with Nets guard Bruce Brown, who fell into Durant’s knee, sending Durant to the locker room.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Durant slowly made his way out of the Nets locker room and limped to a waiting car in the bowels of the arena. He didn’t think the injury was too serious but wanted to see what the MRI would show Sunday morning. When asked if he would travel to the team’s next game in Cleveland, Durant unfurled his long arms into a shrug, the universal pose for “I don’t know.”
The Nets, led by Harden’s 27 points, escaped with a 120-105 win.
The test results revealed an MCL sprain in Durant’s left knee and Nash said a couple of days later there wasn’t an exact timeline for his return. Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Sunday that the franchise expected a four-to six-week rehabilitation, likely leaving Brooklyn down another one of its stars through the February All-Star break.
Monday, Jan. 17 | Cleveland, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
The Nets were hopeful they could build chemistry with Irving over the next week as their four-game road trip began. Especially since 11 of their next 13 games would be on the road.
“It’s not straightforward where I get the chance to give him a call every day,” Nash said before Monday’s game. “You can’t replicate NBA games. It’s a process we also have to be aware of, that he’s still adapting to the demands. And also adapting to a new cadence. … So it’s different, and it’s something that we have to give him time to adapt to and to get to his best.”
One year and one day after trading for Harden, the Nets have had their star trio together for exactly 16 games. That number will not grow for at least another month, something Irving addressed after a 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Everyone’s going to feel it, but for me personally, I’m just like, ‘Man, we just got back into the swing of things and here we are,'” Irving said. “One of our guys is out for a long period of time so we just got to face the reality, man. Just move forward.”
The Nets struggled to move forward without Durant in Monday’s loss. As players made their way off the court, they were given positive words from assorted team personnel, but their mood remained quiet as the group faced its reality for the foreseeable future: no Durant and no Irving at home, as the star guard made it clear he would not change his stance on getting vaccinated even with Durant out.
Nash put into context the opportunity ahead of the Nets.
“This is nothing new for us, unfortunately,” Nash said before the game began. “Losing Kevin Durant is a huge deal, but if it’s ever been minimalized it’s in this situation because we’re used to having all sorts of guys in and out and different things occur.”
Wednesday, Jan. 19 | Washington, Capital One Arena
The more Kessler Edwards played alongside Irving, the more the Nets rookie forward picked up on how closely Irving had been watching the team from afar.
“Obviously when we have Ky here for these away games, it’s a different dynamic,” Edwards said before Nets’ ninth game in 15 days since Irving returned. “I can tell he’s been watching the game and he kind of, like, understands even what I do.”
How can Edwards tell?
“Just like certain passes he’d make and stuff,” the 21-year-old said.
A few hours later, Irving tallied a season-high 30 points and seven assists in a narrow 119-118 win against the Washington Wizards.
Irving, in his fifth game of the season, acknowledged how happy he was to be back on the floor with his teammates, and also explained in greater detail what he did during the time he wasn’t with the team.
“I was playing 24 with a bunch of friends. I was playing with some high school kids. I was training high school kids,” Irving said. “Having open dialogue — boys and girls from high school. Boys and girls from college as well. Got guys in the NBA, girls in the WNBA. And that’s what kept me connected. I’m not too far away from the game, I’m able to still watch, I’m able to still observe. … But really it was just I got a chance to see the game from another viewpoint, how much impact we really make in the world on this.”
When told Wednesday’s game marked the two-week anniversary of Irving’s return, even Nash had to take a moment to process all the things that had happened since Irving’s first game in Indianapolis.
“Is that it?” Nash said. “Two weeks? Crazy.”