NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has played in some of the most pressure-packed atmospheres the game can offer, but as his team prepares for next week’s play-in tournament and tries to solidify its playoff seeding with just four regular-season games left, Irving admits he has never felt this kind of late-season pressure.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this where late in the season all these games matter,” Irving said after Tuesday’s shootaround. “Usually you’re just trying to fine-tune your game, work on details, get some rest. But I’ve been playing 40 minutes [at] the end of the season, it’s the first probably few times in my career, even when I think about my first three years in Cleveland we were not winning as many games towards the end of the season, there still wasn’t as much pressure.”
Irving said he doesn’t feel the expectations of the Nets have changed despite the fact that they’ve had a season full of ups and downs. Tuesday night marked an up — the Nets beat the Rockets 118-105 to climb into a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
“I think that was probably part of our own pressure that we were putting on ourselves,” Irving said ahead of Tuesday’s game. “It’s a must-win-now mentality, and though it is there, but we’re in it for the long run so we’re just going to play free and do everything we can to prepare for this play-in tournament.”
Irving said it did not matter to him where the Nets land in the play-in tournament, echoing what star forward Kevin Durant said after Monday’s practice.
“It doesn’t matter,” Irving said. “We look forward to whoever’s going to be our opponent. We’ll prepare for them. Do-or-die situation, one-game elimination. It is what it is.”
Nets guard Bruce Brown said after Monday’s practice that he thought the group’s energy was “a little low,” something that Irving acknowledged the entire team is dealing with, to an extent, with a week left in the regular season.
“I think Bruce is dealing kind of with the rigors of the [whole] season himself,” Irving said. “He’s played a majority of the games, and for me coming in I try to bring a refreshing energy into it. But I can speak to that, saying that I’ve been in so many different scenarios playing basketball; the peaks and valleys that go on and when you’re in a valley, it becomes even more of an emphasis to really criticize or read between the lines and see what you can do better.
“Everybody wants to be a winner so if you’re not winning, it’s going to affect you somehow. And you want to be able to make some adjustments and make some changes to change that. So I think he’s feeling it. I think our whole group was feeling it some sort, but it’s no time to hold our head now. It’s the end of the season and this feels like our little mini-March Madness right now, just getting ready.”
Against the Rockets, the Nets were without Seth Curry, who continues to deal with left ankle soreness, and Goran Dragic, who remains in health and safety protocols. Brown, who missed Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks because of a non-COVID illness, played.
“I think we’re in a unique situation,” Nets center Andre Drummond said. “Nobody would have thought we’d be in this situation — this team would be a top-5, top-2 team, but things happen. It’s the NBA. Teams are having a great year, great season, so a little adversity doesn’t hurt anybody, I think we’ll be fine. I think we just have to take this play-in game however it comes and move forward from there.”
When asked if he thought the Nets could win a title if they were healthy, Irving offered an uncertain answer.
“We’ll see,” Irving said. “We’ll see, man. You can’t predict the future as of right now. Anytime I try to do that — God has a way of humbling me. I’m just going to take it one day at a time like I’ve been saying all season. And game to game, I can’t even think about, if we win all four games, if we go 3-1, if we go 2-1, then who would we play? I can’t even think like that. I’m just looking forward to tonight, getting on our home floor and putting on a good show.”