Kyrie Irving Won in the End, but His Victory May Cost the Nets in a Dreaded Play-in Game

A few short months ago, it felt like Kyrie Irving would never take the court for the Brooklyn Nets again, let alone this season. But just ahead of the playoffs, the mercurial point guard is officially all systems go.

New York City’s vaccine mandate has prevented Irving from suiting up in any of Brooklyn’s home games. Now, the seven-time All-Star will be able to play at Barclays Center for a Nets team that still believes it can win a championship.

Kyrie’s refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine still ended up working out in his favor, even if it cost him 53 of Brooklyn’s 73 games. But based on the current standings, his controversial choice can still crush the Nets in their most important game of the season.

Kyrie Irving is allowed to play at home

For several months, New York City has required its athletes to be vaccinated against coronavirus in order to play home games. But Thursday morning, mayor Eric Adams officially lifted the mandate, allowing Irving and others to suit up sans restrictions.

“This is about putting New York athletes on a level playing field,” Adams said during his news conference at Citi Field, home of MLB’s New York Mets (h/t ESPN). “We were treating our performers differently because they live and play in New York City.”

Irving has become the face of the un-vaxxed athlete. The 30-year-old, who celebrated his birthday the day word broke of Adams’ impending announcement, was initially away from the Nets altogether after the team decided they didn’t want him being a part-time player. However, a rash of positive cases during the league-wide spread of the Omicron variant forced Brooklyn to reconsider its stance and invite Irving back.

Since making his debut on Jan. 5, the 11th-year veteran has been insanely productive. Irving is averaging 28.5 points — a career-high — on 49.4% shooting from the field and a whopping 43.8% shooting from three. His overall scoring numbers have certainly benefitted from recent outbursts of 50, 60, and 43 points in three of his last four games.

The Nets could still lose Irving for their play-in game

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving speaks to the media after the game.
Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets speaks with the media. | Mark Brown/Getty Images

Between Irving’s status as a part-time player, Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain, and the James Harden trade saga, the title-contending Nets are just 38-35, good for the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference. That means that if the season were to end today, Brooklyn would travel across the border to play the seven-seed Toronto Raptors in a play-in game. The 40-32 Raptors lead the Nets by 2.5 games with around 10 to go.

Although New York City’s vaccine mandate has been lifted, Canada’s has not. So barring any major changes over the next few weeks, Kyrie would be ineligible to play in Brooklyn’s biggest game of the year.

The Nets have already experienced life without Irving while facing their likely play-in foe. On Feb. 28 and Mar. 1, Brooklyn dropped back-to-back games against Toronto — a 36-point drubbing at home and one-point nail-biter on the road. Kyrie of course missed both, but so did Durant.

It’s certainly not set in stone yet, but the Nets should anticipate having to play the Raptors with a playoff spot on the line. And they should start preparing for Irving’s unfortunate absence while they’re at it.

Kyrie’s full-time availability still doesn’t guarantee anything for the Nets

While the Nets may not have Irving for a road play-in game against the Raptors, they’ll have him for matchups in 28 other NBA arenas. That alone should give them a massive boost come playoff time.

For all of the off-court drama, it’s clear that Kyrie is still one of the game’s top stars. His perfect chemistry with Durant has helped Brooklyn maintain its grasp of a top-eight seed. More importantly, it’s given the Nets the assurance that he’ll be able to contribute in all seven games of a series rather than just the four road contests.

That said, the Nets are hardly guaranteed to make the playoffs. Irving’s home debut is expected to come Sunday against the Charlotte Hornets, who as of Thursday sit a single game back of the eight-seed. The Atlanta Hawks, who Brooklyn plays on Apr. 2, are also just two games back.

The Nets will ultimately need to hold their ground to ensure that if Irving’s absence in Toronto causes them to lose, they’ll at least have one more shot to punch their playoff ticket. Falling to the nine- or 10-seed and losing immediately would be a catastrophic ending for a team that boasts enough talent to win it all.

For now, the Nets are glad to have Irving back at home. But they shouldn’t breathe any sighs of relief just yet.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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