NEW YORK — While the Nets were one of the preseason favorites as title contenders, a pandemic-affected, twisting season finally came to an end Monday. The Celtics swept the Nets, beating them on their home court 116-112 in Game 4 to clinch the first-round series.
That means an offseason of question marks for Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and the rest of the squad. The Nets were expected to be a super-team at the beginning of the season alongside James Harden. But there were plenty of outside distractions during the season. Brooklyn was a first-place team in the East early on, but it fell apart amid injury and availability concerns.
Of course, one of the headliners was Irving’s inability to play in home games. Local mandates meant unvaccinated players such as Irving weren’t allowed to play at Barclays Center. That took a toll on the Nets as they kept sliding down the standings
“I felt like I was letting the team down at a point where I wasn’t able to play,” Irving said postgame Monday. “We were trying to exercise every option for me to play, but I never wanted to just be about me. It became a distraction at times.”
The Nets’ initial plan was to have Irving sit out every game, both home and away. They didn’t want a part-time player, and while they still paid Irving half his salary for road games, he didn’t play or practice with the Nets.
Brooklyn changed course when COVID-19 health and safety protocol numbers spiked around the league last December. Teams were desperate as they signed 10-day contract players and the Nets needed a body. That’s when the Nets agreed to bring on Irving as a part-time player who could only suit up in road games.
That was the case for most of the season as Irving and the Nets never got any flow to their team. Local mandates were tweaked at the end of the season so Irving could play in Brooklyn. But it was too late and the Nets had to earn their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament.
Irving said after Game 3 that the team didn’t gel much, and a big reason for that was because of the guard’s part-time status. There were other huge factors, such as Durant’s MCL injury and the Ben Simmons-Harden deal at the trade deadline.
That’s all in the past now, though, as the Nets enter an intriguing offseason. Brooklyn at full strength — with guys like Joe Harris and Ben Simmons in the lineup — are plenty dangerous once paired with Durant and Irving. But after another early postseason exit, there’ll be some loud questions.
“We just turn the page and look forward to what we’re building as a franchise and really get tougher,” Irving said. “This is a league that’s getting younger, that’s getting more athletic, that’s getting taller. It’s getting more competitive, and these young guys are hungry at each other.”
Story by Souichi Terada, MassLive.com.