The season has devolved rapidly for the Nets, whose crash since Kevin Durant left the lineup after spraining his left MCL has them plummeting down the Eastern Conference pecking order and questioning how to approach the trade deadline this Thursday.
Kyrie Irving’s return from unvaccinated exile for road games hasn’t made up for Durant’s absence. The Nets lost their seventh consecutive game — their longest skid since the 2019-20 season — Friday in a noncompetitive blowout at Utah.
Potential trade candidate James Harden also missed that game with a hamstring issue, but Irving’s presence has not helped the Nets avoid this disastrous stretch. They are 3-7 in the 10 games Irving has played this season, entering Sunday’s road contest against the Nuggets. The seven-time All-Star guard has averaged 22.8 points and 4.8 assists over more than 35 minutes per appearance.
“I don’t feel like I’m very close to where I want to be personally,” Irving said after scoring 15 points on 6-for-20 shooting against the Jazz. “The eight-month layoff, coming off my ankle injury [last season] and not being able to have the summer that I wanted to, not being able to have preseason, not being able to just dial in with the guys early on in the season the way I wanted to, it definitely had an impact.
“But I’m just battling through it and trying to put a full 48-minute game together where I know I’m myself [and] ultimately, I’m able to lead with the other guys on my team to win. We’ve got a few [wins], but for the last few I’ve played in, we haven’t gotten it. So we just take our hits and we just keep learning from it and growing.”
The sliding Nets (29-23 overall) are nearly as close to the 11th place Wizards in the Eastern Conference (five games) as they are to the top-seeded Bulls (four), after Washington’s home loss to Saturday to the league-leading Suns.
Even the middling Knicks are within 5.5 games of the sixth-place Nets, who suddenly sit just a half-game above the Raptors and the 7-10 play-in scenario.
“I have mountain-high expectations for myself. But right now, I feel like, with our personnel, if I’m not shooting well or I’m not playing well or we don’t have the same production from guys that we’re used to getting it from, it’s going to be a tough night,” Irving said. “I don’t want that to be kind of the note on our team. … I want all our guys to feel confident.
“Everybody works hard on their games. Everybody has that confidence to be able to make an impact. We’ve just got to keep that forward-facing mentality.”
Coach Steve Nash’s team has 30 games remaining, and Irving presently would be eligible for just 11 of them unless he decides to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or mandate rules are lifted in New York and other cities with such restrictions. There actually are 14 road games left, but Irving also currently would be ineligible to play in two games at Madison Square Garden and one in Toronto.
“It’s really just where we are, facing reality, that we’re not winning ballgames right now,” Irving said. “We’ve got to kind of get out of that hole with just one win and then start a new streak from that point. But [it’s] no time to feel like our season is in doomsday or we need to push the panic button at all points.
“We have to face reality that a lot of guys, a lot of my teammates, we’re still getting to know one another, how we play, what’s our spots, offensive and defensive tendencies. And then communication. … It’s not just from the head coach or the assistants, but really just from us as teammates. Trusting that we have the experience to win basketball games.”