NBA

Irving earns praise as injury-hit Nets move first in east, Durant nears return

By Sports Desk April 23, 2021

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash hailed Kyrie Irving's gritty display as the injury-hit NBA title hopefuls topped the Boston Celtics without superstar duo James Harden and Kevin Durant.

With Harden (hamstring) and Durant (thigh) sidelined, Irving helped the Nets move top of the Eastern Conference by defeating the Boston Celtics 109-104 on Friday.

Despite a poor shooting performance against his former team, Irving fell just short of a triple-double after posting 15 points on four-of-19 from the field while missing all six three-pointers, 11 assists, nine rebounds and four steals.

Nash, though, praised Irving after the Nets (40-20) replaced rivals the Philadelphia 76ers (39-20) atop the east.

"Ky had some steals, assists," said Nash. "It was not his typical scoring night, but it's few and far between when he doesn't score the ball at a prolific rate.

"But he definitely disrupted the basketball game defensively, and overall, he draws a lot of attention. I thought he was great in a lot of different ways than we're accustomed to and I thought his team-mates really picked him up as well."

"As a competitor I was just trying to go out there and do the little things, the small details, picking guys up or just being in the right position," added Irving. "When you don't have your legs on the offensive end, I felt like I was getting to where I wanted to go.

"A few angles, right, left, short, this that, just continuing to play, just continuing to have that mentality, next play, and I can have an impact with my team-mates on both ends of the floor, just making the right play. It's a simple game when you've got team-mates that are out there that are in the right spots and they're fulfilling their roles too."

Joe Harris top-scored for the Nets with 20 points, while Jeff Green (19), Bruce Brown (15) and Blake Griffin (13) made solid contributions for battling Brooklyn.

"I think that's why we're in the position we're in because we've had, I think, 33 different starting line-ups and we've had different rotations and different combinations on the floor and guys have had to buy into the way we want to play and play for one another," said Nash.

"So every night, it's got to be someone else who steps up and has opportunities but also fits in with what we want to do. I think that speaks for the spirit of the group and the willingness to try to pick each other up and not worry about themselves but to worry about the group.

"That's been fantastic, so it was a good performance. I thought [DeAndre Jordan] was great, I thought Bruce [Brown], although he was in foul trouble, did a lot of great things for us as usual. Right down the line, guys made plays for us."

Former MVP Durant missed his third consecutive game due to a thigh contusion and pre-game, Nash told reporters: "I think he's close. But I don't think he's there.

"I think we'll see tomorrow [Saturday] and Sunday if that's a possibility, but it may not [be]. So it may bleed back into this road trip. I wish I could give you more. That's kind of all I know is that it's close but it's not quite there."

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    Khris Middleton wants the Milwaukee Bucks to "own it and learn from it" after another painful defeat again highlighted their struggles without Jrue Holiday.

    Going down 121-114 to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday meant the Bucks have lost four of their last five games.

    Middleton's 34 points, and 27 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, could not propel Milwaukee to victory as they conceded 38 points in the fourth quarter.

    The team's ball handling in Holiday's six-game absence has often not been clever, and the sooner the starting point guard returns, the better for the Bucks.

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    Sidelined by ankle soreness and COVID-19 protocols, Holiday also missed the win over the Brooklyn Nets that preceded the slide. Before that, he was showing exemplary form, averaging 23.9 points and 7.9 assists in his most recent 10 games, way above his season averages which now stand at 18.4 points and 6.7 assists.

    "I've been playing with Giannis for years, so I know his spots where he wants the ball, how to get it to him, but Jrue adds another layer of that, where he's able to attack and get other guys going, including Giannis," Middleton said.

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    "We're just missing an extra playmaker, extra scorer, extra defender, an extra player out there."

    Antetokounmpo had eight-of-20 shooting from the field in Monday's setback, and managed just six rebounds. Only once this season has he had fewer rebounds.

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    Coach Mike Budenholzer struck a similar tone, saying the reigning NBA champions have "a lot of areas where we need to be significantly better", adding: "We need more from everybody."

  • 'Our margin for error is not great' – Donovan accepts Bulls need to improve after losing run goes on 'Our margin for error is not great' – Donovan accepts Bulls need to improve after losing run goes on

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  • Irving will not change vaccine stance despite Durant layoff: I'm standing rooted in what I believe in Irving will not change vaccine stance despite Durant layoff: I'm standing rooted in what I believe in

    Kyrie Irving does not feel compelled to change his stance regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the Brooklyn Nets potentially being without Kevin Durant for six weeks.

    The seven-time NBA All-Star has refused to be vaccinated against coronavirus and is therefore banned from playing in home games due to New York's vaccine mandate.

    Irving was left off the Nets' initial roster for the 2021-22 season, but that decision was reversed last month when the 29-year-old was included as a part-time player.

    He has been restricted to four road games so far and has averaged 20 points, which is down on his career average of 22.8.

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    "That's what I think comes into a lot of this culture and basketball and sport and entertainment," he said. "You bring in teams and you bring in situations. 

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    "But in terms of where I am with my life outside of this, I stay rooted in my decision. And that's just what it is.

    "It's not going to be swayed just because of one thing in this NBA life. That somehow it's brought to my attention as being more important than what's going on in the real world. 

    "It's just not happening for me. I respect everyone else's decision. I'm not going to try to convince anyone of anything or any of that, I'm just standing rooted in what I believe in. 

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    Irving was speaking after leading Brooklyn with 27 points in their 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday – his best tally since returning to action this month.

    The Nets are once again denied the chance to partner star trio James Harden, Durant and Irving, but head coach Steve Nash is hopeful others can step up.

    "It's a great opportunity for guys and our team to grow," he said. "We can't rely on Kevin in ways we could, and we have to find ways and solutions to be competitive without him."

    The Nets' 'Big Three' have played only 16 games together, going 13-3 across that period.

    "It's a great challenge for us," Nash added. "I don't spend time dwelling on it. It wouldn't do us any good. It wouldn't do me any good. 

    "It wouldn't do the team any good if the leader of the team is sitting at home contemplating how many games they haven't played.

    "That would take me away from being excited and positive to come in every day and try to affect the group positively for these guys to feel empowered and to grow."

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