The Nets didn’t have the injured Kevin Durant or the injured James Harden on Friday night in Salt Lake City. They did have Kyrie Irving.
It wasn’t nearly enough as the Nets lost their seventh in a row, 125-102. They never led and trailed by as many as 34 points.
"Myself alone, I can’t do it," Irving said after his 15-point effort. "It’s always going to be about the collective unit and how we feel good about being close as a team and then going out there and playing basketball, which is supposed to be fun. But when you’re losing — and it’s a win-first league and a win-only league — and you get judged by wins and statistics and how well you put a streak together and how consistent you are, then the spot we’re in is going to look like it’s far worse than what it is.
"But being in this league for as long as I have been for 11 years, I’ve seen ups and downs, experiences, and we’ve just got to trust that we have the group regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup to be able to put a 48-minute game together."
Irving has played in 11 road-only games since his Jan. 5 return. The Nets are 4-7 and Irving is averaging 22.8 points.
It’s impossible to think of the Nets as a championship contender without Harden and Durant.
The unvaccinated Irving — who is not allowed to play in New York City under COVID-19 rules — said he is still getting comfortable playing with his available teammates. Perhaps this tough time will help the Nets come together though adversity.
"Building championship habits takes time," Irving said. "Time is not necessarily always on our side. I don’t know what game this is for me, so I’m still just getting used to being in this flow of everything right now, still being in an observant place. But building championship habits is staying resilient and knowing that there’s another level to push to when you’re tired and you have all the excuses in the world and you just continue on. You don’t hold your head or anything like that."
The Nets, who will finish their road trip on Sunday in Denver, have fallen to 29-23, which was sixth in the Eastern Conference going into Saturday.
"It’s really just where we are, facing reality, that we’re not winning ballgames right now," Irving said. "We’ve got to kind of get out of that hole with just one win and then start a new streak from that point.
"But no time to feel like our season is in doomsday or we need to push the panic button at all points. But we have to face reality that a lot of guys, a lot of my teammates, we’re still getting to know one another, how we play, what’s our spots, offensive and defensive tendencies. And then communication. Knowing that we can get on guys and guys love to be coached. It’s not just from the head coach or the assistants, but really just from us as teammates. Trusting that we have the experience to win basketball games."
It will help when Harden returns from his tight left hamstring and then, after that, when Durant comes back from his knee injury.
Until then, it’s a one-man show — at least in the games in which Irving is allowed to participate under current COVID-19 rules. Including Sunday’s game, he will be able to play in three of the Nets’ next four and will have to sit out the four after that.