Kyrie Irving assured reporters in his press conference that his team and running mate Kevin Durant were in good spirits and displaying confidence regardless of the status of Durant’s injury following Sunday night’s victory in Miami, where the two-time champ exited.
Over 14 hours later, it was reported that Durant would miss at least a month with an isolated MCL sprain. A similar injury sidelined him for an extended period of time last season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski stated that there is optimism that it will not reach the longevity of the six-week absence that Durant and the Nets experienced last year. The roster is now much better equipped; when that happened close to a year ago today, Brooklyn went on to drop 18 of their next 23 contests.
Irving has certainly done his job, and then some, playing at an all-time high since the issue he let come into existence led to the suspension he served shortly after the season’s tip. This circumstance calls for arguably the most crucial quest Irving has had to conquer, given the dominance the team has shown in their current situation. So, with Nets fans understandably skeptical given Irving’s history, a question arises.
Can Kyrie lead the Nets without Durant in the second half of the season?
Despite questions about his dedication and decisions off the court from his past, accompanied by things he has previously said to the NBA’s media and viewed in the press, maybe the biggest knock on Irving’s career has been his ability to lead and carry a team.
No juice as a kid on the Cavs’ with a depleted roster prior to LeBron. There was no spark in his coaching of a deeply talented Boston Celtics team, where he seemingly gave up near the elimination stage, visibly both physically and mentally, as his words provided proof. And, well, we know what has gone on in Brooklyn in his multiple years as a Net.
It certainly will not be easy, but Irving and the more deeply bolstered Brooklyn roster have been performing like they are capable of doing so. Not including his first season in black and white without Durant, where his outstanding numbers as a Net came about, Irving has been lights out without Durant stat-wise. In 39 games by himself since 2020-21, Kyrie has put up 28.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 6.5 apg with 49.1/36.9/90.9% splits.
Since returning from suspension on Nov. 20, Irving is averaging 25.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists while shooting 50% and 40 from behind the arc and 89.6 from the free-throw line. Kyrie has led the league in fourth-quarter scoring this season, trailing only LeBron and Giannis.
Could this be the time that the narrative changes for Irving and the Nets?
Brooklyn has won 18 out of 20 games, leaving them just a game and a half behind the NBA-leading Celtics. There are some tough, notable matchups to close out January with Boston approaching, Golden State, Philadelphia, and the hot Lakers.
During this explosive stretch, the Nets have amassed the league’s best offensive rating and point total. Unimaginably, they are within the top six in both defensive rating and opponent points allowed.
The Nets have had the No. 2 assist ratio over the last 15 games. They are 20th in pace. That could significantly increase over the next month or so with Irving, particularly Ben Simmons, who will have more opportunities to regain his confidence in transition with the ball in the open floor, despite previously being one of the best in that category.
This challenge for Irving is a perfect test both on and off the court. Leadership-wise, for all the naysayers and executives out there who assumed the guard would never receive anything more than a two-year max entering the free agent market this summer or at any time in the future.
If all currently holds as is and Brooklyn later makes some sort of run this spring, how could the Nets not bring him back at any cost?