This is one crazy NBA season thanks to a jam-packed schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic along with health and safety protocols that have complicated life for every team. With a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets began the season with championship aspirations, but they entered Sunday’s game against the Thunder at Barclays Center with a mediocre 5-5 record that has them tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Working out their chemistry issues with a revamped roster under first-year coach Steve Nash promises to be a season-long process. Their loss Friday night in Memphis ended a stretch of eight games in 13 days. Their game against the Thunder marks the beginning of a stretch of 13 games in 24 days before they get two full days off between games three times in early February.
During the Nets’ win over the 76ers on Thursday, Sixers guard Seth Curry left the bench midgame when contact tracing showed he had been exposed to COVID-19. Subsequently, several other members of the 76ers had to go into quarantine, and they had only nine available players for a loss to the Nuggets Saturday night. It happened again Friday night when Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas was pulled at halftime for health and safety protocols.
The Nets' Caris LeVert, who scored 43 points in that loss, was shocked to learn the reason Valanciunas didn’t play but happy to hear the Grizzlies center was not positive for the virus. Certainly, the Nets have not been immune. Durant missed three games in quarantine for the same reasons before his returning against his former Thunder team, and guard Tyler Johnson remained in quarantine for the same reason.
"It's crazy times right now," LeVert said. "It's unpredictable, especially for us NBA players. You know we got a couple players out with that right now, contact tracing, things like that. So, I think you’ve just got to expect the unexpected in these situations.
"As a team, if we're talking basketball, we just got to be next man up mentality because you never know what could happen."
In addition to missing Durant and Johnson for health and safety protocols, the Nets were without Irving on Sunday for the third straight game for what was described as "personal reasons." Multiple reports said Irving sat out because he was upset about the insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol last Thursday and because there has been no punishment for policemen involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake and the killing of Breonna Taylor. Nash declined to provide any details about Irving’s conversations with the organization, calling it a "private matter."
Asked about the difficulty of playing without their top stars recently, Nets forward Joe Harris said, "I think we’re playing the cards that we’re dealt. Obviously, it’s a tough situation. Everybody is battling their own issues over the course of this season and two out of three [wins] in this league is pretty solid. I mean, to be an elite team where we want to go, we need to be a little bit better and have a little better win ratio.
"But for right now, in terms of small victories, I think it’s a good step in the right direction … I think we’re going to carry this momentum, and obviously, it’s going to help a lot when we get Ky back and Kevin back."
Jeff Green also was heartened by the Nets’ 2-1 record in their previous three games. "We’re going to battle," the forward said. "I think we showcased that. We just have to keep it going. We have to keep this momentum when [Durant and Irving] get back. We’ve got to continue to believe in ourselves and help these guys out."