Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets guards Ja Morant of...

Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets guards Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies during game at the Barclay Center, Brooklyn, New York Mon. Jan. 3, 2022. Credit: Errol Anderson

The Nets are ready, so ready, for Kyrie Irving’s return.

That was made ever so clear Monday night when Ja Morant lit them up for 36 points in the Grizzlies’ 118-104 victory at Barclays Center.

Monday began with several reports that Irving will play his first game of the season on Wednesday in Indianapolis. It ended with an ugly defeat that underscored just how much the Nets need him back.

The loss was the Nets’ third in a row and dropped them to two games behind first-place Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings. Before this three-game losing streak, the Nets (23-12) had not lost two consecutive games this season.

Coach Steve Nash stopped just short of guaranteeing that Irving will play his first game of the season in Indianapolis, but all signs seem to point to the seven-time All-Star making his season debut against the Pacers.

"Yeah, we’re hopeful," Nash said before the Memphis game, "but no determination has been made. So we’ll see how he does between now and then."

Nash said the determining factors on whether he plays on Wednesday will be "how he feels and whether we determine it is safe for him to come back."

Irving, who is unvaccinated, is ineligible to play at Barclays Center because of New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. He also is ineligible to play at Madison Square Garden and in Toronto.

Initially, the Nets decided they didn’t want to deal with a part-time player, so Irving did not play at all. After a variety of injuries and COVID-related absences put major pressure on healthy players, the Nets reversed their position in mid-December and announced that they would let Irving play in road games.

Irving had to pass through health and safety protocols and get back into game shape before he was ready to return.

Memphis (24-14) entered Monday’s game with six players in protocol and two out with other injuries. The Grizzlies also entered with one of the NBA’s most versatile players in Morant, and he attacked the Nets relentlessly at the rim.

He scored 18 of the Grizzlies’ 40 points in the third quarter as they took control of the game for good. He also finished with six rebounds and eight assists.

Kevin Durant had 26 points and James Harden added 19 for the Nets, who were outrebounded 72-42.

In the past five days, the Nets have lost to the 76ers, a decimated Clippers team and now the Grizzlies.

"I think just defense. Defense hasn’t been great," Nash said when asked if there is a common thread in the three losses. "But our defense can improve and part of it is we can’t panic . . . So let’s not overreact, but that was embarrassing tonight. We got our butts kicked and we got to do a lot better to get back to the standard we played at before [the three-game COVID] interruption."

It hasn’t just been the defense that has struggled. Because of the absence of Irving and Joe Harris, who had ankle surgery in November, the Nets have been somewhat limited in their offensive options. The two averaged 30 field-goal attempts per game between them last season.

While Patty Mills has stepped up and hit some big shots this season, players not named Harden or Durant have not provided the firepower the team needs on a nightly basis.

Now it appears that at least for away games, they may get a boost. And the team can’t wait.

"That’s always good to have new energy," Durant said. "But more than anything, he’s an efficient player who can put the pressure on the defense and a good defender as well. So we’re just looking forward to what he brings as a player."

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