Why Kyrie Irving’s stellar outings still just teases for Nets

Each moment of brilliance is followed by resignation.

The Nets can only enjoy a 50-point masterpiece from Kyrie Irving for so long before checking the schedule again. A defensively outstanding game from Irving is proof of what the Nets’ season can be — and then the layoff reminds what the Nets’ season has been.

At least thus far, it has been a tease.

Irving was a different kind of spectacular in Thursday’s 129-100 destruction of the 76ers, in which he scored 22 points but was more impressive on the other side of the court. For much of the game, he shadowed James Harden, and the practice time the two have shared. Seemingly every move Harden made Irving was ready for, limiting The Beard to easily his worst game since the trade that sent him from Brooklyn to Philadelphia.

In dismantling another contender, the Nets offered a tantalizing glimpse at the title-winning team they can be even before Ben Simmons debuts. And yet, barring a late-season rule change from the mayor’s office or mindset change from the point guard, Irving only can touch the court in four of the Nets’ remaining 15 games before the postseason. He won’t play Sunday, when the Nets play host to the Knicks, and is eligible for one game in their next five.

Kyrie Irving guards James Harden during the Nets’ win over the 76ers.

Irving, of course, is unvaccinated and unable to play in home games — or games at the Garden, where the Nets visit April 6, or games in Toronto, which looms as a possible play-in destination. He has shown no willingness to be persuaded into being jabbed and has cited beliefs that he feels are bigger than basketball.

The Nets have hoped the private sector mandate that will not allow Irving to step on the Barclays Center court is lifted, but there has been no movement even after Mayor Adams lifted the city’s vaccine mandate for indoor businesses, dining and events on Monday.

There has been no indication from Adams that the private sector mandate is changing anytime soon.

“Status quo remains,” a source told The Post on Friday, with less than a month left in the regular season.

“It’s not really in our control, so we leave it up to the mayor and wait patiently,” Nets coach Steve Nash said last month.

Without movement, every sweet play from Irving becomes bittersweet. On Thursday, many of those plays came defensively.

Irving, one of the best ball-handlers in NBA history, has never been known for clamping opponents down, but he knows the game and knows opponents’ tendencies. The Nets generally switch on picks, yet Irving waved off switches and hung close with a former teammate who had forced his way out.

Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving

What Irving lacked in weight he made up for in quickness, showing good anticipation and slapping the ball away from Harden and out of bounds early in the first quarter.

When Irving had the matchup, Harden shot 1 of 7 for three points with three assists and a turnover — part of a nightmare, 3-for-17 night for Harden.

“Just taking the assignment and doing what I could make it tough on him. Obviously James is not always going to shoot like that,” Irving said of Harden, who did not play the fourth quarter because they were so buried. “But I just wanted to make it tough, be in his airspace.”

If in a month Kevin Durant was playing like perhaps the best player on the planet, which he has been since returning from injury, Irving were a full-time, underrated two-way superstar and Simmons returned to play excellent defense at a minimum, the Nets’ path to the Finals — regardless of their seed — would be clear.

But nothing is clear this season with Irving, who conceivably could be forced to watch a few play-in games from afar. If the eighth-place Nets and seventh-place Raptors hold their slots, the Nets would travel to Canada without Irving for a one-game showdown for the seventh seed. If Brooklyn lost that game, it would play host to the winner of the 9-10 game — the Hornets and Hawks at the moment — and barring a rule or vaccination change, Irving could not help the Nets in a win-or-go- home situation.

Every gorgeous floater or savvy play from Irving excites the team and fan base. But excitement becomes realization soon enough.

— Additional reporting by Nolan Hicks


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