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Extracurricular storylines, legacy debates, controversy, memes, hearsay and transactions, both actual and hypothetical, so often take center stage. It is a reality that both ingratiates and grates, an approach as divisive as it seemingly intends to be.
To be clear: It didn’t consume the coverage.
More attention was paid to the Bucks, their 127-104 victory, the dominance of reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his casual 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks, and the performance of what is a deceptively deep bench if Jordan Nwora (15 points, six rebounds) and Pat Connaughton (20 points, four made threes) continue to play like this.
Still, Irving’s absence did not go unnoticed or undiscussed. How could it? One of the 12 to 20 best players in basketball was missing from the lineup of a team deemed the closest thing to a championship formality the league currently offers.
His is a gaping void no matter the context.
It just so happens the context matters, because his absence is avoidable. It’s voluntary. The Nets have decided Kyrie will not be an active participant with the team, neither in practice nor games, until or unless he complies with New York City’s covid-19 vaccine mandate.
Issues of public health and safety—which, make no mistake, are exactly what’s at play here—remain far bigger than their impact on a basketball team’s everyday operations and championship chances. But beyond the many, more important dynamics at work here, there is a basketball team, a title favorite, that must find itself independent of its third-most important player and a veritable superstar, the kind for which there’s no formula effective enough or committee large enough to simply replace.
That doesn’t actually appear to be the case at first glance. Brooklyn still has Kevin Durant and James Harden, two of the five best basketball players alive. It will find no sympathy for its plight beyond the direct fanbase. The Nets are, on paper, a contender without Kyrie. Some would dare to say they remain the foremost favorites.
Opening-night referendums cannot be a thing in an 82-game season, but if Tuesday’s loss was any indication, the Nets have a looong way to go before they’re functioning anywhere near business-as-usual without Kyrie.
Attributing their letdown versus Milwaukee solely to one player’s absence is an oversimplification of what took place. Sure, they could have used Kyrie’s 27 points and six assists on career-best efficiency from last season. In the first half specifically, they definitely could’ve used his capacity to feast on switches.
But the Nets did not lose just because they couldn’t score, or because they didn’t have one player’s ball-handling and scoring. This was hardly a banner outing for their offense. They still shot 53.1 percent from deep (17-of-32), received an Olympics-esque performance from Patty Mills (7-of-7 on threes) and averaged more points per possession in the half-court than Milwaukee.
Kyrie no doubt shields the Nets offense against leaning so heavily on Mills and general blahness. But does he ensure the Bucks won’t attempt 21 more shots? Or that they won’t outscore the Nets 22-2 on points off turnovers? Or that Giannis and Khris Middleton will shoot worse than 10-of-13 combined at the rim and 8-of-16 combined from mid-range?
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Does Kyrie help Brooklyn’s frontcourt rotation feel and play any less slapdash? Or reverse the decision to, even if only for one night, basically bounce Bruce Brown from the rotation? Is he going to be the force behind better transition defense? More unlucky opponent three-point shooting?
Blame for the Nets’ loss can and should be dispersed to any number of reasons. Chief among them is the Bucks themselves.
Jrue Holiday logged under 18 minutes before leaving with a right heel contusion. Milwaukee didn’t have Donte DiVincenzo. Or Bobby Portis. Or Rodney Hood. Or Semi Ojeleye. The Bucks were spectacular anyway. They swallowed shots at the rim. Their defense at large played like pure, utter, unchecked adrenaline.
They looked like a team both confident and, more importantly, familiar with itself no matter who’s on the floor, typifying a sense of continuity and camaraderie about which the Nets can only dream.
Self-discovery is Brooklyn’s burden, and it was never unavoidable. Head coach Steve Nash was always going to be tasked with finding frontcourt combinations that work, that make sense. This team’s secondary wing rotation is a house of cards. It has Durant and Joe Harris and then… who? Jevon Carter sponging up defensive reps against Middleton, a fringe All-nba player and subtle punisher of smaller dudes?
This uncertainty is almost welcome, because some of it is solvable. James Johnson won’t look like the lifeblood of the frontline every game. If either LaMarcus Aldridge or Paul Millsap is genuinely cooked, the rotation will reflect as much start to finish. Brown isn’t drawing bench duty forever after this game.
The Nets will futz and fiddle and be better in macro. Durant is still buttery and spectacular (32 points, 13-of-25 shooting) yet will, somehow, bring more oomph. Harden will have louder and more efficient nights (20 points, eight assists).
There is no shame in being worse than the reigning nba champs on Night No. 1. Brooklyn is wading through an extension of preseason. It’s in this for the long haul.
At the same time, this Nets squad is built only in theory to plow on with Kyrie. Their offense sure looked like it needed another ball-handler and shot-creator for long, painful stretches. Their three-star lineup is supposed to be an uncrackable cheat code. They are not only without that, but what would otherwise be two-star minutes are now solo- or no-star spurts.
Those obstacles will not just disappear or address themselves, and they are unplanned. Having Durant and Harden does not make it any less significant. The Nets will always be a top-12-to-20-player short until or unless they’re not. Their job is not to play like that doesn’t matter. Their mission is to find some semblance of continuity and camaraderie and balance amid glaring incompleteness.
Right now, they’re still searching, still discovering, nowhere near on schedule but hardly behind it. All the Nets know is all they knew before Tuesday night, and all they will know for a while: that it’s too early to tell whether Kyrie’s absence, however long it lasts, will be more minor-to-moderate inconvenience or crippling emptiness, but every outcome is in play.