With Kevin Durant out, Kyrie Irving’s confidence is driving the Nets

Kyrie Irving isn’t lacking in confidence.

It is his defining characteristic. It’s also why the Brooklyn Nets have stopped slipping down the Eastern Conference table after four straight losses in the absence of Kevin Durant.

It was Irving who repeatedly publicly set the tone for the rest of the group after spraining right MCL Durant on January 8. Irving pushed hard against the idea of ​​the Nets repeating last year’s tailspin without Durant as they lost 11 games straight in January and February while Durant was out with a left MCL sprain.

What would be so different this time?

“I just remain hopeful,” Irving said after a disappointing loss to the Phoenix Suns last week. “That’s it.”

After leading the Nets to a 120-116 win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, a game that left Brooklyn up to 17 behind, Irving’s confidence shone brightly.

“I told you guys I put a lot of pressure on to be the first option or the second option or the main option,” Irving said. “And that’s just a message for everyone at home, first option, second option, third option, I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t matter who has the ball as long as they’re aggressive and that’s the best shot for our team.”

Irving, who goes into Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) and has 116 points, 25 rebounds, 22 assists and 8 steals in his last three games, has taken the No. 1 spot, which Durant cast, even if he downplays the nickname.

But Irving’s teammates know the only way for the Nets to survive Durant’s absence is for Irving to continue dominating the entire stretch in games.

“He’s special,” said Nets swingman Royce O’Neale after watching Irving drop 48 points in a 117-106 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday. “He does it night after night. He leads us. We have his back, we support him.

As he learns to feel comfortable again at the top of the Nets’ food chain, the trust Irving is building in the rest of the group is fully showcased. Irving’s ability to make the right pass and confidence — both in himself and in the rest of the group — underscores the biggest misconception about the seven-time All-Star from fans and those outside of the Nets dressing room. After all the controversy and chaos he’s caused the organization over the past few seasons, Irving’s teammates still love him. But more importantly, they trust him.

Irving played 29 games last season because he elected not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which prevented him from playing home games for most of the season due to New York City’s vaccination mandate. He was voluntarily absent from the team for 11 days in 2020-21 and missed seven games at that stretch. He was then banned for eight games that season for promoting a book and film with anti-Semitic themes on social media. Despite it all, the Nets players are confident that Irving will be there for them when they need him.

Underscoring that sentiment is an intriguing James Harden reunion en route to the Sixers game. Harden joined the Nets two years ago from the Houston Rockets and believed he could win a title with Irving and Durant. A little over a year later, he went to Philadelphia, in part because he couldn’t trust Irving to take the floor.

Harden acknowledged after the trade that part of the reason he pushed for the exit was uncertainty about Irving’s status. He quit the group around this time a year ago. Durant was injured, Irving was in and out of the lineup and Harden seemed like he didn’t want to be there anymore.

In recent weeks, both Irving and Nets center Nic Claxton have been attacking Harden in a less-than-veiled manner without naming him specifically, saying they feel this team is better equipped to deal with Durant’s absence , than last year’s group that collapsed at the top by the February close.

“Last year … it was kind of a toxic environment,” Claxton said after a Jan. 17 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “We didn’t know at the time whether everyone wanted to be here. This year there is no separation between everyone who is out there.”

Harden’s performance against his old team seems to inspire lingering feelings about what would have happened if the talented trio had stayed together, but Irving, for his part, looks and sounds like a man who’s moved on.

Irving offered another subtle difference in how he feels about this journey. After weeks of wearing sunglasses on the podium for his press briefings with reporters following his suspension, Irving removed his glasses after Friday’s win against the Jazz and again after Sunday’s win over the Warriors. When asked on Sunday where he was after the bumpy start to the season, he gave an insight into his thoughts.

“I think a lot of things that happened are in retrospect,” Irving said. “I haven’t forgotten them but it’s something I don’t prioritize as much because the team is what matters most here and just making sure I know best how it’s mentally, physically and emotionally. So I feel like we are afterwards as an organization, as a team, me individually, mentally stronger.”

https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/35517306/with-kevin-durant-kyrie-irving-confidence-driving-nets With Kevin Durant out, Kyrie Irving’s confidence is driving the Nets

Emma Bowman

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