Starting center Nic Claxton says a Nets team that has been playing better without Kyrie Irving (suspended) will take it to another level when he returns to the rotation.
“I feel like once we get him back, the way we’re playing right now, it’s going to break the game wide open,” Claxton said after practice on Friday. “He can adapt to any system, and you know, that’s 30 points we’re missing out there.”
It might look like the Nets are playing a different style of basketball with Irving out of the rotation serving a five-game suspension, but the team maintains it’s not, that the 3-1 record without Irving and the 2-6 record with him is a byproduct of a once-lackadaisical team merely starting to give a you know what.
The Nets’ success through the turmoil — the backlash following Irving’s controversial post, the head-coaching change eight games in, plus injury recovery up and down the roster — is a testament to the depth on a roster general manager Sean Marks reconstructed over a chaotic offseason.
Without Irving, the Nets, of course, have leaned heavily on Kevin Durant, but it’s everyone else on the roster picking up the slack to compensate for Irving’s 27-point-per-game absence that has helped change the tide in Brooklyn.
As well as a slightly more forgiving schedule, though that is set to change in the coming days.
“No,” Claxton replied when asked if the team runs different sets without Irving than they did with him. “Just building game-by-game learning to each other. Different guys stepping up. When guys are out, I think it’s just us trusting and addressing each other, playing hard.”
So might Irving’s status. The star guard embroiled in off-court issues has met with multiple parties, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Nets owner Joe Tsai and the National Basketball Player’s Association, after the franchise deemed him “unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets” for “failure to disavow antisemitism” after his social media post.
Both Tsai and Silver said last week they do not believe Irving is antisemitic, and the NBPA has had representatives express concern with the terms of Irving’s reinstatement, which included six tasks he must complete to the floor.
The breadcrumbs suggest Irving could return sometime after the Nets’ four-game West Coast road trip.
“Hopefully,” said starting forward Royce O’Neale. “We just want everybody to come back together and have the team continue to keep building chemistry and keep moving forward.”
That means the Nets, who have already welcomed back a healthy Joe Harris and Seth Curry with Ben Simmons turning a corner in his rehab, will be as close to full strength as they’ve been all season. And they’ll be welcoming back one of the league’s most prolific isolation scorers.
There’s a long history, though, suggesting isolation scorers, Irving included, have a tendency to stop the ball from hopping.
The Nets have won these games in large part due to selflessness with the basketball (recording 30 assists in their blowout win against the Knicks on Wednesday) and with a heightened defensive effort that’s earned Brooklyn the title of best statistical defense since Jacque Vaughn took over for Steve Nash.
“I think we just had a sense of urgency defensively. I think our communication has gone up a lot,” said starting center Royce O’Neale. “We’re all covering for each other. That leaves for easy offensive breaks, fast breaks, the offense just moving the ball and then spacing out for each other.”
How does Irving’s pending return impact the team on both ends of the floor?
“I think that’s to be determined,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said at Nets practice on Friday. “When that happens, we’ll address it. I think I’ve given this group: Don’t use any excuses. So the excuse right now is nothing. We’re going to play with this group right now.”
O’Neale says the team will continue to play the same way they’ve been playing without him.
“He’s a great player, All-Star,” he said. “I feel like you can adapt to whoever. We know what he brings to the table and we need that going forward.”