MEMPHIS — The first two games of the Kyrie Irving era with the Nets have not lacked for drama. The free agent who signed a four-year deal worth $141 million in July and came in tandem with injured max-salary free agent Kevin Durant scored 50 points in the opening overtime loss to the Timberwolves and then hit the game-winning shot Friday against the Knicks while scoring another 26 points.
But the pattern of the first two games suggests it not only will take time for the Nets to get comfortable playing with a superstar point guard like Irving, but also, they must learn to handle the pressure of greater expectations. In the opener, they blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. Against the Knicks, the Nets blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and trailed by three heading to the final minute, where Irving hit two big shots, including the go-ahead three.
Now, the Nets (1-1) face their first road test against the rebuilding Grizzlies (0-2) Sunday night at FedEx Forum. Irving emphasized the need for patience when asked if his new teammates might be feeling some self-imposed pressure.
“I mean, that’s just where we are when you have the caliber of players coming in and then obviously the expectations that are put on the team,” Irving said. “It’s just a difference in terms of where they were a few years of being solid and then making the playoffs in the [sixth] seed. Now, we have these caliber of players, and there are a lot of teaching moments for us to really take ourselves to the next level.
“As individuals, we’re pretty good. But as a team, we just have to stay patient with one another and just build it step by step. It’s no rush. We have 80 games. You just take them one at a time and just really enjoy playing with your brothers out there.”
Center Jarrett Allen admitted he has struggled around the basket in the first two games. He often is involved in pick-and-roll action with Irving but has botched a few of the passes Irving has delivered.
“I think there is a little pressure,” Allen said. “People are expecting more. We have a top-10 player, arguably a top-five player, on our team. I think people are expecting a lot more . . . since I’ve been here, every year, we’ve taken a step. So, the expectation has gotten higher and higher, and this year, we’re setting it pretty high.”
If there’s one thing the Nets have learned quickly, it’s that they can count on Irving down the stretch. Although he missed a potential game-winning shot in the overtime loss to the T-Wolves, he scored nine straight points late in the fourth quarter to keep the Nets in the game, and he delivered another seven in OT. After the Knicks took a fourth-quarter lead with a 15-2 run, it was Irving who reversed the momentum with his two big baskets.
Asked what the Nets have learned about Irving in those moments, Joe Harris smiled and said, ‘You probably give him the ball and get out of the way. No, having a player like that, you know he can make plays down the stretch. It gives the team a lot of confidence. The Knicks got up by three with a minute and a half to go. I don’t think any us were worried. We’re fortunate to have a player like Kyrie who bailed us out.”
As Irving sees it, that’s his job description. “If I’m not shooting it down the stretch,” Irving said, “then, I don’t think I’m really living up to what I work every day to be able to accomplish and that’s to come down the stretch and make good plays.”