NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving made his home debut Sunday night, in the 75th game of a Nets season in which he was not seriously injured, nor recovering from surgery, nor trapped in some alternate plane of existence.
There is nothing normal about that sentence, nothing normal about the circumstances that led here and nothing normal about the challenge this purported contender now faces—primarily because of the predicament Kyrie Irving put the Nets in with his stubborn, bewildering refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Those facts did not change Sunday, no matter how many warm, roaring ovations Irving received in his first home game since New York amended its vaccine mandate. And the celebratory mood at Barclays Center grew dour by the end of the night, as the Nets fell to the Hornets, 119–110, leaving the two teams tied for eighth place in the East.
Irving struggled early, caught fire late and finished with 16 points (on 6-for-22 shooting). If his uncanny shotmaking down the stretch was a reminder of how electrifying Irving can be, the sight of the Nets mired in the East’s bottom half was a reminder of the havoc Irving has wrought.
The Nets are in a fight just to make the playoffs, largely because Irving was barred from playing the first two months of the season and still barred from home games until now. He’s played just 22 of a possible 75 games, leaving Kevin Durant without a reliable costar for too much of the season.
Irving was at last cleared to play last week when New York mayor Eric Adams carved out an exception for athletes and performers. It was a massive relief for the Nets, albeit one that may have come too late to save its season.
The Nets have just seven games left to find the rhythm and chemistry that’s eluded them all year. And it will get only tougher from there.
To win a championship, the Nets have to first make the playoffs, likely through the play-in tournament—and possibly without Irving for one game (we’ll come back to that). It’ll have to knock out a No. 1 or 2 seed in the first round, beat a likely 50-game winner in the second round and, quite possibly, face a third 50-game winner in the conference finals.
The Nets will not have home court advantage in any round. They might not have star forward Ben Simmons, who was acquired six weeks ago but has yet to play because of back problems. And if they have to play in Toronto at any point—either in the play-in round or in a best-of-seven series—they will not have Irving, because Canada is still barring unvaccinated people from entering the country.
People can argue all they want about the fairness or efficacy of New York’s mandate, but this much is indisputable: The Nets would not be in this quandary had Irving simply gotten the shot—as every one of his teammates and coaches did—and been playing from opening night.
Not that Irving sees it this way, of course.
“Honestly, there’s no time to consider the past,” he said after Sunday’s loss. “We only can control what we can control moving forward. We know where we are in the standings, and we also know how much talent we have in that locker room, and what we’re capable of doing.”
Over the course of his postgame interview, Irving spoke of accepting “full accountability,” though he was referring to his poor shooting, and declared his desire not to be a “distraction,” though that was about the crowd’s ovations for him. He oddly—and proudly—spoke of his return as “historic” and “bigger than basketball,” as if his exemption from the mandate carried some larger meaning.
At no point did he offer even a hint of regret for all the games missed, all the games lost without his services, all the strain placed on his team. Indeed, he was as defiant and as self-righteous as ever about his anti-vax stance.
“The point of this season for me was never to just take a stand,” Irving said. “It was really to make sure that I’m standing on what I believe in—in freedom. Freedom. I don’t think that’s a word that gets defined enough in our society, about the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the f--- to do.”
He seemed entirely oblivious to the reason for people telling him “what the f--- to do” in this instance—namely, the need to stem a pandemic that has claimed nearly a million lives in the United States.
There was never a legitimate rationale for Irving’s vaccine refusal—not philosophical, not medical, not political—and if there is, he has yet to coherently explain it.
Irving painted himself as some sort of anti-vax martyr, an avatar for all whose livelihoods are impacted by the mandate which, by the way, still applies to countless New Yorkers who are not rich and famous. Irving is benefiting from an exception made for the most fortunate—and it’s wholly unclear what, if anything, he’s doing for the working-class folks he claims to represent.
Ultimately, that stance accomplished nothing. City officials did bend, but seemingly more to save the Yankees and Mets from having their own seasons ruined by vaccine-refusing players. But the Nets' season is already irreparably warped.
How many more games might they have won with a vaccinated Irving in the lineup? How many spots higher would they be in the East? To say nothing of James Harden, who forced a trade in February after growing frustrated with Irving’s part-time status and the Nets’ struggles.
The star Harden was swapped for, Simmons, might not play a single game before the playoffs. There’s no guarantee he plays in the postseason, either. If chemistry and cohesion and continuity mean anything, the Nets are in serious trouble.
The top of the East has gotten only stronger. The Celtics are rolling. The Bucks are whole again. The Sixers have found their stride with Harden and Joel Embiid. And the Nets? The Nets are just hoping a few weeks of Kyrie and KD is enough to generate some magic while pretending all their problems were just an unfortunate twist of fate.
“This is the situation we’re in,” Durant said. “It’s a challenge, and everybody is going through challenges this season.”
Some challenges are a matter of happenstance, of bad luck, a twisted ankle or a ruptured ligament. The Nets' problems were entirely self-inflicted, absolutely unnecessary and wholly avoidable.
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