Hard as it is to believe, the Nets’ strange season got stranger Sunday.
About an hour before tipoff of their first home game of what the Nets hope will be a championship season, the team was forced to briefly shut the doors at Barclays Center after a group of protesters chanting "Let Kyrie play!" pushed past metal barricades and stormed the entrance.
The star guard hasn’t been with the team since Oct. 12, when the Nets decided he could not practice or play with them until he either receives a COVID-19 vaccination or New York City changes its regulations that bar unvaccinated individuals from public indoor spaces such as Barclays Center.
Yes, even when he’s not here, Irving somehow ends up grabbing the headlines and becoming the focus of the night.
The Nets, who were the favorite to win the title before Irving’s banishment, are 1-2 after an ugly 111-95 loss to a young, athletic Charlotte Hornets team Sunday.
Three games in, the Nets have played maybe five minutes of really great basketball. They were crushed in Milwaukee in the season opener. In between that and Sunday, they relied heavily on the heroics of Kevin Durant to get them a win in Philadelphia on Friday.
Fair or not so early in the season, doubts are beginning to creep in. Durant may be the best player in the game, but is it fair for the Nets to depend on him to rescue them every night? Do they have enough to win it all without Irving? And when are these guys going to start playing defense?
These are some of the questions that Durant found himself having to answer after scoring 38 points in the Nets’ losing effort.
"I mean, while we are playing in a game, I am not going to sit there and say when we get down or it is a tight game, like, ‘Damn, we don’t have enough,’ " Durant said. "We definitely want Kyrie Irving out here on the floor. And he is a huge part of what we do. But it is not happening right now. So we got to figure it out.
"But no one is going to lose confidence while we’re playing and hope Kyrie comes to save us during the game."
This game was Durant’s first at Barclays Center since he came inches away from hitting a three-pointer that would have won Game 7 of the Nets’ second-round series against the Bucks.
Milwaukee went on to win the championship. The Nets went into the offseason vowing to come back and win it all this season.
And then we got the Irving vaccination mess.
Because of New York City vaccination rules, Irving cannot play at Barclays Center. After apparently considering whether they wanted him as a part-time player, the Nets rightly decided it would be unfair to both Irving and the team to flip him in and out of the lineup depending on whether they were at home or on the road.
Though this was the right decision, it doesn’t mean the Nets aren’t going to have some growing pains. The team thought it was going to have three great players this season in Irving, Durant and Harden. Now the Big 3 is the Big 2 and they are going to have to figure it out.
Durant certainly believes they will.
"I’m not about to say there’s not enough out here," he said. "I’m not going to say that. I feel like we had a nice control of the game in the first half. They played a better second half. It’s three games in.
"Of course we have enough."