As if the Nets needed yet another reminder of how much they have missed Kyrie Irving at home because he has not complied with the New York City vaccine mandate, his absence was glaring again in a 121-109 blowout loss to the defending NBA champion Bucks on Friday night at Barclays Center.
The loss added to the Nets’ baffling home-court malaise, extending their losing streak in Brooklyn to five straight games and dropped their overall home record to 10-10, which stands in marked contrast to their NBA-best 14-3 road record.
"We’ve struggled at home by our standards," Nets coach Steve Nash admitted. "It’s frustrating. I believe we’re .500 at home, so that’s difficult .
"I think some of it is the inconsistency of COVID — guys in and out, trying to get their fitness back and then coming all back together without much practice time. That is just how it hit us .
The catalyst for the blowout was Bucks star Khris Middleton, who had a rough opening half, but scored 15 points in the third quarter, including 10 in a 19-4 run that gave the Bucks a commanding 87-63 lead. Middleton had a four-point play and hit two other threes in that span.
The Nets never got closer than 12 the rest of the way.
Asked to explain the reasons for the Nets’ recent slump, Nash said: "You name it. We’ve really struggled since all the COVID interruptions. We were having a very good year. We actually played well through the COVID situation. But since we’ve gotten everyone back, more or less, we just haven’t had the confidence, the spirit, the joy, and you can see it."
Kevin Durant once again paced the Nets (24-13) with 29 points, and James Harden had 16 points but shot 6-for-15.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks (26-15) with 31 points and shot 11-for-17, Bobby Portis Jr. made a major contribution with 25 points and 12 rebounds, and Middleton had 20 points.
The Bucks came in severely shorthanded with Jrue Holiday, Pat Connaughton, George Hill and Grayson Allen all in COVID protocols and with Donte DeVincenzo (ankle) and Brook Lopez (back injury) nursing injuries and with coach Mike Budenholzer in protocols and replaced by Darvin Ham.
But Antetokounmpo came out of COVID protocols in time to face the Nets.
Prior to the game, Nash was asked if he is worried players might be more pumped up for road games, especially now that Irving has returned as a part-time road player.
"I hope it’s not that way," Nash said. "They might get their juices going to get in a building on the road and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got Kyrie tonight.’ But I don’t think they’re sitting at home \[thinking\], ‘No fun at home without Kyrie, fun on the road with Kyrie.’ They’re excited to play the game, and we just have the added bonus of having a terrific player join us on the road."
Well, the Nets clearly could have used that terrific player, as they showed with yet another slow first-half start at home, trailing 60-49 at halftime. Harden bemoaned the lack of consistency because of constantly shifting lineups.
"It’s a lot of ups and downs," Harden said. "If we find some consistency and we find our roles and our lineups and rotations and things like that, we’ll get out of it. It’s just a tough time right now."