Kyrie, Nets acknowledge off-court issues took toll

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    Nick FriedellESPN Staff Writer

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      Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

NEW YORK — In the wake of their season-ending sweep by the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets formally acknowledged on Monday night what was apparent throughout their season: All the issues they dealt with off the floor had a big impact on how they played on it.

“I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season,” Nets guard Kyrie Irving said after their 116-112 Game 4 loss. “We all felt it. I felt like I was letting down the team at a time when I wasn’t able play. We tried to give me every opportunity to play, but it was not about me. It became distracting at times. As you can see, we have made some significant changes. “

Irving’s acknowledgement was noteworthy given that his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 hung over everything the Nets did all season. The New York City vaccination mandate required that all workers must be vaccinated before they can return to work. This created uncertainty for the Nets as they began the season. The Nets declined to allow Irving to participate as a part-time player before reversing course in December after a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Irving was allowed to return to the floor on Jan. 5, but he was not able to participate in road games. New York City Mayor Eric Adams rescinded the mandate for performers and athletes in March.

Aside from Irving’s in-and-out status, the Nets dealt with an ankle injury to guard Joe Harris that forced him to miss all but 14 games this season; an MCL injury to star forward Kevin Durant that forced him to miss six weeks; and a trade at the deadline in February that sent James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks. Harden later admitted that the trade was due to Irving’s part time status. Simmons was also traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons and two first-round picks.

“I think that’s a big reason why we were in that position, a lack of continuity,” coach Steve Nash said of the distractions off the floor. “Kevin has to carry such a heavy load to keep us in the playoff picture. All of these things have an impact on what happens on the court. They are tied and it is clear that they have an impact. There were too many, too numerous things that kept us from winning for moments and pockets throughout the season. “

The Nets endured an 11-game losing streak without Durant, and a stretch through February in which they lost 17 of 20 games. Just as it seemed they were on the verge of turning a corner, another incident would change the course their season. The Nets, picked by many before the season to win the NBA championship, finished with a 44-38 record, good for seventh place in the Eastern Conference — and a playoff berth solidified by a play-in game win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 12. The Nets never found the rhythm that every great team needs to win the playoffs.

“No regrets,” Durant said after getting swept for the first time in his career. “S— happens. There’s no need to cry about spilled milk. It’s all about how we can move forward and improve from here. We can see that we have been through a lot in this year. Everyone in the company knows what we went though. There is no need to regret or get too upset. It’s all about how we can find ways to improve, and how we can be proactive as an organisation to do better.

“Even the great teams, they don’t dwell on what they do, they just try to continue to keep getting better. We know our mistakes, but we can learn from them and turn them into strengths. We can’t regret what we did. S— was just how it was. “

While the Nets were frustrated with the season, and how the series against the Celtics played out, there was almost a sense of relief that things finally ended on Monday night. The Nets were unable to handle the pressure on the floor, despite the fact that they never reached the high ceiling many believed was possible.

“We lost a franchise player [in Harden] and we got a franchise player back [in Simmons],” Irving said. But we didn’t have the chance to see him on-the floor. [Simmons] did not feel compelled to take the floor with us. Ben’s good. We have Ben, we have him back. He’s going be great for next year. Now we can just turn the page, look forward to what we are building as a franchise, and get more difficult. …

“That’s why I said it’s some added motivation when you get swept like this. Although I didn’t play as well as I would like, we now look forward as a team and see what we can accomplish in the next few years. That is what I love about it. “

So much of that future now centers around Simmons, who was not at Barclays Center on Monday night as he continues dealing with back issues, according to the Nets. Irving, for his part, said that he didn’t plan on going anywhere when asked about a long-term extension. He has a player option this summer worth over $36.5 million.

“There’s no question about where I’m going and how this is going to happen,” Irving said. “I’m here with [Durant],, but I also want to build a great group. I’ve done this many things, averaged this many points. Although I have been recognized individually for my greatness, at this stage in my career, all that matters is being part of a great team. Focus on the team and not on individual achievements or accolades. Build something special. That’s what my focus is going into the summer. “

Durant also made it clear that he would like to see Nash return as coach of the Nets next season.

“Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years,” Durant said. Durant said that he’d had to deal a lot as a head coach and first-time coach. He had to deal wit trades, injuries, COVID, and other issues. I am proud of his focus and passion for us. We will all continue to grow over the summer, and we’ll see what happens. “

As the Nets embark on what could be an interesting summer, both Irving and Durant made it clear that they believe brighter days are ahead for the organization.

“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together,” Irving said. “Alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai], [general manager] Sean [Marks], only our family members in the locker room, in this organization. It’s not about me and Kev. I don’t want it to be about them. We’re cornerstones, but we have a few contract guys. We need to talk about it this offseason and make sure we have fun and have fun.

“And hopefully we get to start from day one just as a squad and as a family and we just really worry about us. Sometimes, I feel like the noise from the outside world, the outside noise, can seep into my mind. I don’t like that. As we build our team, I think we need to be more tough mentally and more honest about what we want. Keep your eyes on the goal and the mission. “

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