The Nets' Kyrie Irving and James Harden celebrate during the second half...

The Nets' Kyrie Irving and James Harden celebrate during the second half of the team's NBA game against the Pacers, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 in Indianapolis. Credit: AP/Darron Cummings

When the Nets told Kyrie Irving before the season began that he could not play in any games unless he was eligible for all games, his presence largely became an afterthought for the first two months of the season, especially after the Nets rose to first place in the Eastern Conference.

But after the excitement surrounding Irving’s season debut in a 19-point comeback victory Wednesday at Indiana was replaced by the discouragement of a fifth straight home loss to the defending NBA champion Bucks Friday night at Barclays Center, the contrast between how the Nets will look without Irving at home and with him on the road became glaring.

Inevitably, Kevin Durant and James Harden, the other two members of the Nets’ "Big 3," were asked if they have encouraged Irving to get the COVID-19 vaccine to comply with the New York City vaccine mandate that prevents him from playing at home.

The exchange between one reporter who asked repeatedly if Harden had told Irving the Nets want him for all games was almost comical. "He knows that, he knows that, he knows that, he knows that," Harden said to each question.

But has he asked Irving to get vaccinated? "Nah," Harden said.

When the Nets first issued their decree that Irving could not be a part-time player on Oct. 12, Durant and Harden both said Irving’s decision was a matter of personal choice. But the Nets rescinded the order on Dec. 17, and it’s clear Durant and Harden had major input into that decision.

As it stands now, Irving can’t play against the Spurs when the Nets face them at noon Sunday at Barclays Center, but he is eligible to play Monday night at Portland and Wednesday night in Chicago but not Thursday night at home against Oklahoma City. So the Nets will have Irving for just two of four games in five days of a difficult coast-to-coast stretch.

Now everyone has to live with the consequences. Following the Bucks loss, Durant offered his most extensive comments yet when asked if he has encouraged Irving to get the vaccination.

"I told him how important he is, how much I want him to play every game," Durant said. "But I’m not about to force somebody to get a vaccine. I’m not about to do that.

"We’ve had conversations about wanting him to be a part of the team and conversations about him being here full-time, but that’s on his time. Whatever decision he’s going to make, he’s going to make. It’s on us to come in here and be professionals no matter what, to handle it and do our jobs, all of us from owner down to equipment manager. Whenever he’s ready, he’ll be ready."

Irving is a vegan, and some reports have suggested he is waiting for the development of a vegan-based vaccine. But neither Irving nor the Nets have addressed that subject directly.

So Durant was asked if he had talked to Irving about his reasons for taking a position on vaccine that prevents him from joining his teammates for all games.

"I ain’t even asked for an explanation," Durant said. "That ain’t my place I don’t think, so I’m ready for whatever. That’s my whole mentality. Whatever happens in this situation, I’ve got to still be me, still go out there and represent the way I represent. I’m supporting whatever my team needs me to do and wants me to do."

That view obviously puts Durant, not to mention Harden and every other member of the Nets’ playing roster, coaching staff and support personnel in a different place from Irving. But it’s representative of the widespread controversy all across America surrounding various decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It’s a weird situation," Durant said. "Who knows? You know what I’m saying? I don’t understand most of this [stuff], COVID, all of this . . . has been crazy the last few years. I just try to stay centered and focus on me. When Kyrie’s ready to make decisions for himself, he will, and I trust that."

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