Kyrie Irving still out on ‘personal leave’ but Nets excited to welcome Kevin Durant back from COVID-19 protocol

Kristian Winfield, New York Daily News

Nets head coach Steve Nash has no return timeline for Kyrie Irving, the All-Star point guard the Nets say is out on “personal leave.”

Irving has not played since Wednesday, though it is unclear what the reasons for his absence are. Sunday’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder marks Irving’s third consecutive missed game, and it is unclear whether he will return for this week’s upcoming games: against the Nuggets at Barclays Center on Tuesday, then across the bridge at Madison Square Garden for a rivalry game against the Knicks.

“Kai is still on personal leave,” Nash said pregame on Sunday. “All the communication between Ky and the organization I’m going to keep private and, I’m sure you’ll hear from him at some point.”

Irving remains absent, but the Nets welcome back Kevin Durant, who has been out since Jan. 3 due to the NBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocol. Durant came in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, but he has continued to register negative coronavirus tests.

The Nets star forward, who is averaging 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal per game through the early season, rejoined the starting lineup alongside Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, veteran forward Jeff Green, and new starting center Jarrett Allen.

“Kevin is excited. He was devastated to have to sit out. We all know he loves the game and loves to hoop,” Nash said. “So, he’s excited to be back, and obviously, I’m one happy coach to have him back. So, I’m thrilled to see him get his legs back under him.”

Irving’s extended absence continues a larger trend for the Nets: learning how to adapt when missing key players. The star guard only appeared in 20 games last season due to a nagging right shoulder injury. At the same time, LeVert also missed more than 20 consecutive games due to a dislocated thumb.

The trend continued this season when Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear sent the Nets into a quick spiral. Without Dinwiddie, the Nets lost three out of four games before rebounding in Irving and Durant’s absence.

Nash said even though Durant is returning, he wants to see the same core basketball tenets in place as the team showed without him.

“We want to play the right way, so to speak, no matter who’s in the lineup. Obviously you’re going to play a slightly different game with Kevin in the lineup than without his prowess, his ability to score in isolation, in the post, at all levels, in all scenarios,” he said. “So in a sense, you can lean on that whereas when he’s not in the lineup, you have to lean more on the connectivity of ball movement, things like that. But, no matter who’s in the lineup, we’ve got to play together. We’ve got to play hard, stick to our principles defensively.

“It’s going to be different if you’re missing one or the other, both bring pretty different attributes to the team. But for our team, we have to be adaptable this year. We’re going to have guys in and out of the lineup for various reasons, we’re gonna have a condensed schedule, we have COVID protocols. The pandemic is not going anywhere right now. There’s so many things that led to us attacking the season in a unique way. I think you’ve seen a unique set of results this year and circumstances. We’ll learn from having Kevin only in the lineup tonight and not Kyrie but we can learn every night and we just have to continue to chip away and get better every single night.”