Kyrie Irving Credit: Bill Moore photo

Coming into this season, the Brooklyn Nets were the betting favorite to win the NBA title. But Kyrie Irving’s long and divisive absence due to his COVID vaccination status changed the odds. Still unvaccinated, he is back with the team, unable to play games in New York where there is a mandate requiring proof of vaccination to enter indoor arenas.

The Nets were able to stay at or near the top of the Eastern Conference without him. Entering last night’s game versus the Indiana Pacers on the road, they were 23-12, in second place behind the Chicago Bulls, who were 25-10. Expectations for the Nets’ title hopes have increased with the seven-time All-Star rejoining Kevin Durant and James Harden to form one of, if not the best, trio in the league.

Tuesday’s 118-104 home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies showed how much the Nets need Irving to help counter some of the NBA’s other top backcourt playmakers. Ja Morant torched them for 36 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists at the Barclays Center, handing Brooklyn its first three-game losing streak of the season. All of them at home.

“He’s special,” said Morant’s teammate Desmond Bane, who had 29 points for the Grizzlies. Memphis improved to 24-14 and No. 4 in the West after the win. “People debate whether or not he should be an All-Star,” added Bane, “but I think we should be debating whether he’s the best point guard in the league.

“I don’t think it’s any question he’s an All-Star. The real conversation is, ‘Is he the best point guard in the league?’”

Harden said the Nets had not put up enough resistance during their losing stretch. “We’re letting teams do what they want, get shots that they want,” he explained. Harden had 19 for the Nets while Durant scored a team-high 26.

“We can’t panic. It’s been a crazy period,” noted Nets head coach Steve Nash. “We gotta rebound better, make less mistakes defensively.” How smoothly Irving melds into the rotation will be a wait and see action.

“He’s got to get his rhythm, and figure out how to play,” said Durant after Monday’s defeat. “He’s an efficient player that can put pressure on the defense.”

The Nets will host the Milwaukee Bucks tomorrow and the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday before road games against the Portland Trailblazers on Monday and the Bulls next Wednesday.

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