Kevin Durant and the Nets have been forced to try to win far too many games at Barclays Center this year without an offensive contribution from Kyrie Irving.
Irving missed 15 of his first 17 shots from the floor in his first appearance on Brooklyn’s home court in nearly 10 months, and even his eight straight points in a fourth-quarter comeback bid weren’t enough for the Nets to avoid a 119-110 loss to the Hornets on Sunday night.
Irving totaled 16 points (6-for-22) and 11 assists, and Durant netted 27 to surpass Reggie Miller for 21st on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Andre Drummond finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds for the Nets (39-36).
LaMelo Ball scored 33 and Miles Bridges added 24 as Charlotte (39-36) moved into a tie with Brooklyn for the No. 8 play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with seven games remaining.
Irving was showered with thunderous applause when he was introduced in the home lineup for the first time since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks on June 7 of last year. He had been ineligible to play in all previous home games this season due to his unvaccinated COVID-19 status, until Mayor Eric Adams made an exemption last week to the private-sector mandate.
“It’s always good to be home,” Irving said as he walked into the arena about two hours before tipoff.
Irving had expressed excitement for this long-awaited Brooklyn appearance ahead of Saturday’s game in Miami, saying he was “pinching himself” since Adams announced the Emergency Executive Order 62 on Thursday, granting unvaccinated New York City athletes an exemption from the city’s private-sector COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Nets coach Steve Nash had to feel the same way, nearing the end of a disjointed season in which he’s employed more than 40 different starting lineups.
“It’s be great to be able to have some bonus energy, Ky’s first game at home this year,” Nash said before the game. “Obviously the guys have to lock in tonight. We got back [from Miami] at four in the morning and you got to be professional and find it some way.
“If we get a little added energy from the crowd and from Kyrie’s first game at home, that’d be great, but we can’t rely on that. We’ve got to come with our mentality and our togetherness and play well.”
Irving is averaging 27.7 points over 21 road appearances this season, including a 50-point outburst in Charlotte on March 8 and a 60-point performance in Orlando on March 15. He had been slated to miss seven of the Nets’ final eight games due to the previous mandates. But these changes will enable Nash to start Irving and Durant together down this final stretch in an attempt to solidify the team’s playoff positioning.
Ben Simmons, acquired at the trade deadline from the 76ers in the James Harden blockbuster, still hasn’t made his team debut while dealing with a back injury.
“I’m very hesitant to pretend that [stability] is just going to be the way it is. But it would be great if we could have some continuity here and make the most of these remaining games so that we can put ourselves further along and be more prepared and more cohesion and understanding of our style of play together,” Nash said. “The further we get there, I think it’s paramount for our success or opportunity to play well in the playoffs.
“I think we just have to be locked in at the moment.”
Irving missed his first five shots and didn’t score until a free throw and a 3-pointer early in the second quarter.
The Nets led by as many as 14 before halftime, with Drummond leading the way with 15 points and nine boards as the Nets carried a 60-56 lead into intermission.
Ball erupted for 18 points in the third quarter, however, including five 3-pointers, to boost the Hornets a 93-89 advantage heading into the final period.
They extended that cushion to nine with barely eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but three baskets and two free throws by Irving moved the Nets into a 106-105 lead with 3:37 to go.
Charlotte nailed four 3-pointers in the final two minutes, however, including two by Cody Martin and one apiece by Terry Rozier and Bridges to pull away.