The Nets have Kyrie Irving back. Now they just can’t throw away their shot.
For all this team’s unlimited potential, there is the reality of its record — 39-36, good for ninth place in the Eastern Conference entering play on Monday — and the reality that Sunday night’s 119-110 loss to the Hornets, the team directly ahead of the Nets in the standings, has a material impact on where their season goes from here.
In a perfect world, the Nets would be playing out the last few weeks of the regular season looking ahead to the playoffs. But then, in a perfect world, Sunday would not have been the first time Irving stepped on the court at Barclays Center this season.
“We just didn’t make shots tonight, but you have to find other ways to win the game,” Nets coach Steve Nash told reporters on Sunday. “Tonight you can look at a number of things. Details. Physicality. Coverages. Knowing plays when we come out of timeouts. Little slippage there.”
Despite being on the tail end of a back-to-back, and despite the emotion surrounding Irving’s return, these are factors that have caused the Nets to enter Tuesday’s game against the Pistons needing to get back on track so they can assure themselves of the consolation prize of playing in the higher-seeded play-in game.
With seven games remaining in their regular-season schedule — six of which Irving wouldn’t have been allowed to play in prior to the vaccine mandate’s reversal — the Nets had the same record as the Hawks entering Monday, but slated to play in the 9 /10 game we have a tiebreaker.
That puts Kevin Durant, and Irving, in the rare position of playing meaningful games toward the end of the regular season.
It seems a safe assumption that neither appreciates the uniqueness of the situation.
Durant, on Sunday, played 41:54 — his largest workload in a post-March 1 regular-season game since April 6, 2014, two presidents, two teams, two championships, one Achilles injury and approximately a lifetime ago.
“I just wanted to play,” Durant said. “Trying to help my team get some momentum there. I felt like they had momentum for the whole third. Towards the end there I felt like we got some control back a little bit so start the fourth and after the game maybe I could have sat for a couple minutes and got a rest and came back in, but I just wanted to stay in.”
Durant’s diagnosis of what went wrong focused on “missed shots that we usually make” more so than tired legs on a back-to-back.
Whatever it was, the Nets can’t have a repeat at home on Tuesday against a Pistons team that will come into Brooklyn at 20-55. Though falling out of the playoffs entirely is unlikely at this point, the difference between the eighth and ninth seeds is the difference between having a one- or two-game margin for error in the play-in.
Everyone is aware that a full-strength Nets would be a danger to anyone in the playoffs, particularly in an Eastern Conference currently devoid of a highly functioning superteam — a deficiency that Brooklyn is as responsible for as anyone else.
“Now we can move on, now everybody can move on,” Irving said, referencing his self-induced sideshow. “Especially in the locker room, limited distractions, no fear, and the next game will be better.”
Actually getting to a best-of-seven series is the challenge in front of them now.