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With Kyrie Irving back, Nets' Big 3 looks to match up with top-tier Bulls

Nets guard Kyrie Irving gestures during the first

Nets guard Kyrie Irving gestures during the first half of an NBA game against the Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., on Monday. Credit: AP/Craig Mitchelldyer

CHICAGO — The Nets lost to Phoenix. They lost to Golden State. They lost to Miami and Memphis.

They were crushed twice by Milwaukee. And they were 0-2 against Chicago heading into Wednesday night's game at the United Center.

The Nets are playing for a championship and they have great players — more great players than any other team in the league — but they have been far from great when it comes to facing elite teams.

The Nets entered the game against the Bulls with an 0-8 record against teams who occupy the top four spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Their two ugliest losses were to the Bucks where they gave up 127 and 121 points.

Also not pretty was the 118-95 they suffered Nov. 8 in Chicago. The Nets, who led after three quarters, were outscored 42-17 in the final period.

Yet, there was legitimate hope that could get a win Wednesday as it marked their first game against a top-tier team since Kyrie Irving rejoined the Nets for road games. Irving, who twisted his ankle in a loss to Portland on Monday, was officially listed as questionable on the injury report though he told reporters in Portland he was going to play against the Bulls.

The Nets' unvaccinated superstar guard is ineligible to play in New York and Toronto because of local rules mandating the vaccine. The Net had originally decided not to have him play at all, but reversed their position in December.

Since Irving’s return, the Nets had gone 1-1 in games he played, winning in Indianapolis and losing a rescheduled game in Portland when they didn’t have James Harden. Irving scored 22 points in both games and was a plus-16 on the floor in the win over Indianapolis.

Those teams are nothing when compared to the Bulls, who began Wednesday night atop the Eastern Conference with a 2 ½ game lead over the second-place Nets.

Nets coach Steve Nash said he is more worried about how his team plays against elite teams in April and May than he is now.

"You know, I think the guys know. They want to get a good win against Chicago because we’ve lost to them twice," Nash said at the team’s morning shootaround. "I don’t think we’re thinking against how we are against all elite teams.

"We’ve got to get there by the end of the season. That's our goal. Hopefully when we get some health, we get some continuity, we get a runway and we can put ourselves into that category. So tonight is a great opportunity to play against an elite team, play well, grow, try to get a win, but most importantly keep getting better."

Injuries, COVID-19 and health and safety protocols have limited the Nets Big 3 to just 15 games together dating back to when James Harden joined Irving and Kevin Durant last season. How much better are the Nets when Durant, Harden and Irving are together? They’re 12-3, including a 5-1 record in last year’s playoffs. This season they are 1-0 as Harden sat out the Portland game with a hyperextended knee.

The difference is so marked when the Big-3 are together that there have been all kinds of wild theories that have been bandied about concerning how the Nets could somehow get around the current COVID-19 restrictions and have Irving play at home. Despite some suggestions that Nets could just pay escalating fines for having Irving play, the NBA has said that players must abide by local rules.

Fortunately for the Nets, they have a lot of road games coming up. After returning home for two games at the Barclays Center, nine of the team’s next 11 are on the road.

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