It was just the preseason home opener Friday night at Barclays Center, but Kyrie Irving missed the first of what might be a multitude of home games this season, and it’s clear his continued absence could turn into a major distraction for a team with championship aspirations.
The details of the Nets’ 119-115 victory really don’t matter. The Bucks rested their own "Big 3" of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and still led by seven points with 4:15 to play before a group of young Nets put together a 17-6 finishing kick to pull the win. Unheralded Jordan Nwora led the Bucks with 30 points and Kevin Durant topped the Nets with 18.
What outweighed everything else was the elephant who wasn’t in the room. Irving was listed as "ineligible." He has not revealed his vaccination status, but no one who is not in compliance with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate limiting access to certain public buildings by unvaccinated people 12 or older was admitted to Barclays Center.
Irving previously missed three practices this week, but a couple hours before tipoff, New York City officials suddenly declared the Nets’ HSS practice facility a private building not subject to the vaccine mandate.
The Nets said that means Irving is eligible to practice there on Sunday. It’s also possible Irving might attend the Nets’ scheduled "Practice in the Park" event Saturday afternoon at Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
"It’s a positive for us to be able to welcome him back in the building to practice and be a part of the team," Nash said before the game. "But this is brand new information to us. We’re trying to work through what the actual details are, so I don’t want to comment too much on it until I know firmly what the parameters are."
Earlier this week, Durant said he doesn’t counsel Irving on personal issues, but he welcomed news of Irving’s imminent return to practice. "At least he can practice, but we want him here for the whole thing," Durant said. "We want him here for games -- home games, practices, away games, shootarounds and all the other stuff. Hopefully, we can figure this out."
James Harden was asked if he worries about a lack of continuity at least until they sort out the current complicated mess. "Not really," Harden said. "We were thrown into the fire last year, and we did a pretty good job. We figured it out on the fly.
"It’s just that him being here obviously makes it easier. But for the most part, we know what we’re supposed to be doing once he joins the team."
Asked how difficult it might be if the Nets have to adjust to different lineups if Irving misses home games for a prolonged period, Durant said that is a question for general manager Sean Marks, Nash and Irving.
"It’s always tough when guys are in and out of the lineup, especially with a starter like Kyrie," Durant said. "I don’t know exactly what the plan is going forward. Right now, they’re still making decisions. Once they figure it out, we move forward."