Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving had the sweetest deal of any player in recent memory for most of the season, where he only had to play half the games on the schedule due to his vaccination status.
Sure, his pay was cut dramatically but, besides that, only playing one or two games per week kept Irving incredibly fresh.
We saw this the week before Kyrie returned to full-time status, where he posted 50- and 60-point games in a seven-day span. In the three games Irving played during that week, he averaged 44 points per game. Irving’s three-point percentage (63 percent) almost matched his field-goal percentage, which was 64.2.
Kyrie was able to return to full-time action the following week on Mar. 23 and since then has played in all six games on Brooklyn’s schedule. Don’t get me wrong, Irving has played well in his full-time return, but he’s certainly come back to earth since being back on a regular schedule like every other NBA player. In these games, Irving is going for 25 ppg, shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. And the Nets are just 2-4 with Irving back full-time.
I know Kyrie can go at it on the court with some of the best, but like anyone, extra rest is a tremendous factor in the level of play, especially when you get deeper into an 82-game season. Irving didn’t even play his first game of the year until January. He’s only played in 25 of the team’s 78 games. Two 50-plus point games in one week is freaking amazing. But I’m not sure how many more of those we’ll see out of him now that he’s back to playing every game.
Heading into the postseason, the Nets will need similar performances out of Kyrie. Brooklyn won both games where he scored 50 and 60. But it’s much harder to do that when you’re playing more often, as we’ve seen since his return to playing home and away games. And it’ll be even more challenging in the playoffs when one team can hone in on specific players for an entire series.
First, the Nets will need to get through the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. Brooklyn has recent losses against two of the three teams they could face in the play-in. They lost to the Hawks in Atlanta Saturday night, 122-115, despite a 55-point performance from Kevin Durant. Kyrie chipped in 31, and Brooklyn still took the seven-point ‘L’. A few days before that loss, the Nets suffered defeat at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets, 119-110. Irving scored 16 points against Charlotte and made just one of his nine three-point attempts. The Hornets’ loss came on the second night of back-to-backs, which Irving obviously hadn’t done much of this year.
Brooklyn is likely going to be the 9 or 10 seed in the East which means they’d travel to Charlotte for their first play-in game if seeding remains the same. Brooklyn and Charlotte currently have 40-38 records, but the Hornets own the tiebreaker winning the season series 2-1. So, Charlotte would get the play-in game against the Nets at home, should things stay the same.
We all know how unpredictable a one-game scenario can be, as we witness each spring with March Madness. The more talented team doesn’t always win in these situations. Having losses against the Hornets and Hawks within the last two weeks isn’t a good look for the Nets. They were supposed to be a dangerous team that nobody wanted to play. Even with Durant and Irving on the floor together in a playoff series for every game, I’m not sure how scary these Nets are at this point. Of the four teams Brooklyn could face in a first-round series (should they escape the play-in), I don’t feel they’d have a definitive edge over any of them. Their best chance at advancement would be against Philadelphia. I just can’t jump on the James Harden postseason bandwagon. And the 76ers have struggled to close out games of late as well.
If the Nets get Milwaukee, Miami, or Boston, each game will be a battle because those teams defend their asses off. Miami might not have that individual superstar, but the ‘Heat culture’ means something, and they’ve seemed to hop back on track since their sideline blow up a little over a week ago. Boston’s come on strong late in the season and are the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA. The Celtics also have a player that can drop 50 in Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown can fill it up as well. And Milwaukee just seems to have Brooklyn’s number. Then there are the Bucks, who have beaten the Nets three times by a combined 35 points.
So, if the Nets hope to have any chance of a deep playoff run, they’re going to need a few more big scoring performances out of Kyrie. They aren’t a great defensive team, although they’ve gotten timely stops of late, except when they play the Bucks. But defense isn’t their most dependable quality as a team. Brooklyn built this team around the scoring of KD and Kyrie. Now that’ll have to be what carries them in the postseason. If Brooklyn’s two future first-ballot Hall of Famers can’t get the job done, then that’ll be two out of their first three years in Brooklyn that can be viewed as wasted.
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