Kyrie Irving has to be super for the Nets to star in the NBA Finals.
That’s the biggest takeaway now with two games under his belt at Barclays Center after mayor Adams created an exemption for unvaccinated pro athletes to play home games in New York City.
If Irving doesn’t play like a Top 75 caliber player, the Nets might as well flush this season down the toilet and pick it back up next season.
Superstar power, after all, is the foundation on which Barclays Center is built. It’s why they traded all those picks and young players for James Harden – to form a Big 3 – and it’s why they’re in position to be the most feared No. 8 seed of all-time. Because they have a legitimate Big 2, quite possibly the biggest two in all of basketball.
Their chemistry has been battered, their limbs have been bruised, but so long as Irving and Kevin Durant shine like the stars they are, the Nets will always have a chance – even with the odds as stacked as high as they are with a play-in tournament appearance locked.
Those odds are only intact if both Irving and Durant are on every game.
For the second game in a row, Irving was not.
After logging just 16 points in the Nets’ recent loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Irving shot 7-of-18 from the field for 24 points and turned the ball over five times in the Nets’ 130-123 win over the Detroit Pistons. The Nets’ star guard looked gassed at multiple points, quite possibly all that part-time basketball rearing its head toward the end of the regular season.
“Games are coming fast,” Irving said after the game. “I’m doing all I can, but yeah, this is what the end of the season has been like for the last few years, and it’s all gonna come down to the team that has the healthiest bodies, and we want to be one of those teams, so we’re doing everything possible to prepare from game to game. So just doing everything we can.”
As Irving worked to find his footing, Durant shouldered the scoring load. He put up 41 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, furthering his campaign for Most Valuable Player.
If only it weren’t for that MCL sprain that cost him a month-and-a-half – and sent the Nets spiraling from first in the East to eighth.
Durant bullied Pistons defenders time and time again, the sole owner of one of the NBA’s most un-guardable shots: the unfazed, contested, pull-up jump shot. He handed it to every Pistons player that dared switch onto him, from center Isaiah Stewart to forward Saddiq Bey.
“Some of those shots, the defense was playing good team defense and you only see a small crack where you can get a shot off, and I just try to stick to my fundamentals,” Durant explained. “And I know that demoralizes some teams when you make shots over good defense, and that calms our team down as well, when we’re making those shots.
“I want to get better shots sometimes, I felt like a couple of them was just like ‘I’m hot, let me risk it.’ But you know, getting the best shot I can; sometimes they may be over a guy in the lane, but I feel like that’s open. So I’ve gotta keep knocking them down.”
He hit Detroit defenders with a flurry of crossovers before making his way to the foul line extended area. With a hand nearly draped over the ball, Durant shot 14-of-23 from the field and 4-of-6 from downtown to go with a perfect nine-of-nine from the foul line.
Yet despite Durant’s greatness, the Nets didn’t pull away from the Pistons (20-56) until the waning moments of the fourth quarter. Brooklyn trailed as many as 10 to a team tied for the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
A team the Nets won’t see in the playoffs. Instead, they’ll see one of the two best teams in the East in the first round, provided they clear the play-in tournament. Provided Irving plays like a superstar in those sudden-death games to prevent the Nets from a second consecutive early exit.
“It’s good for us to go through periods like that, because there’s going to be times in the playoffs when teams get hot unexpectedly and see how we weather the storm,” Durant added. “So it’s a good test for us, and I like it no matter if we’re playing the Pistons or the Milwaukee Bucks. I think this situation we got better from, and we moved, we evolved as the game went on, regardless of the opponent.”