NYC vaccine exemption changes Nets, NBA landscape

MIAMI — Getting Kyrie Irving eligible for home games doesn’t just change the Nets, like Kevin Durant said. It could change the NBA.

Mayor Eric Adams’ announcement of an exemption for unvaccinated athletes and entertainers in the city’s private sector COVID-19 vaccine mandates — the “Kyrie carve out” — is a game-changer for the NBA playoff race.

“Today I sign an Emergency Executive Order 62, expanding the performance exemption to private employer mandates,” Adams said at Citi Field. “This is about putting New York City base performers on a level playing field.”

Order 62 could reorder the league’s postseason and alter the playing field. Upgrading Irving from a part-time player to a full-time one also upgrades Brooklyn — sitting eighth in the East and deep in the play-in morass — from spoiler to contender. And maybe even a favorite.

The Nets had no comment, other than team owner Joe Tsai tweeting three thankful emojis, followed with, “Let’s work together to bring jobs and our New York economy back!”

Kyrie Irving, driving to the basket during a recent game against the Grizzlies, can now play all home games for the Nets for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
USA TODAY Sports

Due to his refusal to get vaccinated, Irving hasn’t played at home since June 7, in Game 2 of the Nets’ second-round series loss to Milwaukee. But now he’s on track to make his Barclays Center season debut Sunday against the Hornets.

It’s hard to overstate how pivotal this is for Brooklyn. The Nets have the league’s 24th — or seventh-worst — net rating at home and the third-best on the road. The biggest factor in that is obviously Irving, averaging 37.8 points over his past four games.

“It just turns our whole team around when he’s out there,” Durant said. “Hope we get some good news.”

They got it Thursday from Adams, who gave it along with the following recrimination: “Kyrie, you should get vaccinated. This does not change my message that everyone should get vaccinated.”

It may not change his message, but it could change the title race. And the Nets are clearly optimism about the way things have come together.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Irving said Wednesday night, refusing to discuss the mandate. “This jumping in the lineup, jumping out, looking forward hopefully that can be something we fix and move past.”

Now that it’s fixed, ex-76ers scout Michael VandeGarde, who now runs his own boutique scouting service, told The Post the Irving news could be seismic.

“Major shift,” VandeGarde said. “They went from being scary but probably not a top three or four favorite … to back in the mix of top three, four, five teams in no particular order.

“I think Nets, Milwaukee, Miami, Philly, Celtics could all win East depending on how they play in playoffs. … Each team could win … each team could get bounced in first round with tough matchup. … Health will probably play a big role for some team as well. … As wide open as ever.”

Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving
USA TODAY Sports

The Nets loom as an unfortunate first-round reward for a team that worked to secure a top seed — like the Heat, 76ers, Bucks or Celtics, all packed within 1 ¹/₂ games atop a rugged East. Brooklyn entered Thursday 2 ¹/₂ games behind the No. 7 Raptors and 3 ¹/₂ behind the No. 1 6 Cavaliers, who faced each other Thursday night at Toronto.

If the play-in was set today, the Nets would be on the road April 12 in Toronto, where Irving still can’t play. Climbing to seventh would give them the play-in at home.

But this may be less about seeding for the playoffs and more about their viability once they get there.

If they finish in eighth as they are now, they’d face to top team in the East (at the moment a rematch of Saturday’s game in Miami).

Seventh earns a date with the No. 2 seed, currently a juicy, petty fight with Philadelphia. The Nets looked motivated in routing ex-teammate James Harden on March 10, and the prospect of Ben Simmons suiting up against his old team would make for tantalizing TV and arguably the tasiest matchup.

Except maybe Milwaukee, a sequel to last year’s Game 7 classic that came down to Durant’s toe tickling the 3-point line. With the Nets convinced it was only injuries to Irving and Harden that kept them from beating the champs, a rematch would be a must-see drama.

Now that Order 62 has made the Nets semi-whole again.

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