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NBA Week: Kyrie's back but limited availability will surely hamper Nets’ title tilt

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Expert
6th January, 2022
0

Surely there is no way the Brooklyn Nets’ experiment with Kyrie Irving playing only away games for the team can work.

Only a few hours after tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic was denied entry into Australia for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Irving made his return for Brooklyn.

Irving has not played since last season after controversially opting not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but he showed little sign of his extended time away from the game, scoring 22 points in a 129-121 victory over the Pacers in Indiana.

He is not allowed to play home matches due to New York City a COVID-19 vaccination mandate that prevents unvaccinated people from entering indoor sporting arenas.

Brooklyn made the decision before the start of the season to punt Irving from the team because he would only be available half the time, paying him his $US35 million annual contract money for the away games they chose not to select him but docking his wages for the home fixtures he’d miss.

After a recent spate of players across the league becoming unavailable due to contracting the virus or becoming close contacts, the Nets relented and allowed Irving to play in road games.

As fate would have it, Irving was placed in the health and safety protocols a day after rejoining the team either for testing positive or returning an inconclusive test, the team did not announce the specifics.

The Nets were commended for their stance in sitting Irving a few months ago and have been widely criticised for doing a U-turn and allowing him to now play in away matches.

Their team has been decimated by squad membrs being out due to the COVID crisis but guard Joe Harris was the only regular rotation player out against the Pacers due to his ankle surgery.

So now we are left with a situation where Irving will suit up for road games but continue to not be sighted in the Barclays Center. He is also ineligible to play at Madison Square Garden under New York City rules as well as in Toronto due to the Canadian government’s regulations on allowing unvaccinated people into the country.

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With the Nets having a road-heavy schedule, Irving is eligible to play eight games in January but when heavyweight opponents like Milwaukee, the Lakers and Denver come to Brooklyn, he will be absent unless he gets vaccinated.

The Nets’ record has taken a bit of a hit lately and they’ve dropped to second in the Eastern Conference behind the red-hot Bulls but they will finish high in the standings to enjoy home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

But that will be a disadvantage to Irving – in four matches of each seven-game series he will be unavailable.

They are still rated the favourites to win the title with most betting agencies but can you imagine a situation where Irving is delivering the goods every other match and a series, perhaps the NBA Finals, comes down to a deciding game seven and he is unable to play because he is “giving a voice to the voiceless” by continuing his anti-vaccination campaign.

Golden State, the likely Western Conference opponents if Brooklyn make the Finals, are based in San Francisco where anyone over 12 must show proof of full vaccination before entering any large-scale event.

However, that won’t mean Irving would have to sit out both road and home games if they square off for the trophy as the law does not apply to members of visiting teams.

A potential out for Irving had been floated with talk that New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams would change the rule but in an interview with CNN, he denied that would be the case.

“It is up to the NBA and Kyrie to come to a full understanding on how to keep him on the Nets and to continue to look at all of our athletes that are coming here. Again, I think the NBA and Kyrie [are] going to come to a conclusion on this.”

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For his part, Irving fronted the media after the win over Indiana and typically didn’t reveal much despite answering questions about his unusual to say the least situation.

“I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are,” Irving said. “But right now, I’m just going to take it one day at a time, like I said, and just enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys.

“However it looks later in the season, then we’ll address it then.

“Like I said earlier in the season, it’s not an ideal situation and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on that could help kind of ease what we’re all dealing with COVID and the vaccine.

“I think everybody’s feeling it and so I don’t want to make it simply about me and simply about somebody lessening the rules for me.”

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The NBA has announced 97% of players are fully vaccinated but, without ever properly explaining his reasons, Irving has waged an ongoing stand against the requirement for people to get the jab.

Irving, who raised many eye brows by questioning whether Earth was not indeed flat severel years ago, followed and liked social media posts from an Instagram account that claimed COVID-19 vaccines are part of a Satanic scheme to connect black people to a master computer, according to a Rolling Stone investigation.

If he wasn’t an extremely talented player, all the histrionics would be a mere sideshow.

But the Melbourne-born former No.1 draft pick, who hit the trophy-clinching shot for Cleveland’s 2016 NBA Championship victory over the Warriors, is a genuine superstar when he’s on the court and at the top of his game.

Despite being one of the smaller players in the league, his handles and skill under the basket to drive to the hoop and make impossible plays makes even the greats like LeBron James and Kevin Durant gape in awe.

Durant, who along with James Harden and the rejuvenated Patty Mills have kept Brooklyn in the title hunt in Irving’s absence, summed up his appreciation for his teammate after watching him get Brooklyn past the Pacers.

“His game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody. It was amazing to see him on the floor again,” he said. “I was happy to have him back. It looked like he had been around for a while. That’s how you play when you’re elite at everything.”

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You can’t rule anything out in these crazy times but if coach Steve Nash is able to deliver a first NBA Championship to the Nets franchise despite having one of his star players available for road games only, it would be one of the most bizarre storylines in sporting history.

Keep your eyes on …

Philadelphia – With Joel Embiid dominating opponents, they are rising up the standings after a slow start. They’ve won five straight to leapfrog Cleveland into fifth in the east and with Miami struggling due to many player absences, it won’t be long before they’re higher.

LeBron James – with Anthony Davis out with a knee injury and the Lakers mired in mediocrity, the King has gone on a tear. In his past five games, he’s scored 32, 37, 43, 26 and 31 while celebrating his 37th birthday along the way.

Weekend must-watch
Saturday – Bucks @ Nets, 11.30am AEDT
Milwaukee are third in the east at 25-15, Brooklyn are second at 24-12, these teams still don’t like each other after their bitter playoff series last season – Kyrie Irving was out injured in that post-season match-up, this time because it’s a home game and he can’t play in them.

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Sunday – Heat @ Suns, 1pm AEDT
Devin Booker has been electric for Phoenix lately as they’ve gone 7-3 in their last 10 while Miami have managed the same record over that stretch despite a host of player absences. Jimmy Butler went down with an ankle injury last week but is hoping to be back for this game.

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