By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Brooklyn Nets had expectations of being the last team standing.
Instead, they were the first team sent packing.
Irving wasn’t around to start the season. Harden was long gone before the end of it.
And after their flop culminated in a first-round sweep by the Boston Celtics, the Nets acknowledged that all their distractions off the court kept them from becoming a great team on it.
“We had our expectations. Everybody had expectations for us,” Durant said. “A lot of stuff happened throughout the season that derailed us, but I’m proud of how we just kept fighting and kept keeping the faith and every day were trying to work towards something.”
The Nets were thrown off course right from the start when Irving refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as mandated to play in New York City. The Nets initially kept him away from the team entirely until he could play in all their games, then brought him back in December to play only on the road after a COVID-19 outbreak left the team depleted.
Soon after, Harden began souring on Brooklyn. The Nets ended their Big Three experiment just 13 months after creating it when they traded him to Philadelphia in February for a package headlined by Ben Simmons.
Simmons never played for the Nets, a combination of back problems and mental health concerns ending hopes that he would suit up during the series against Boston.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. The Celtics were a cohesive unit that got better as the season went on. The Nets were an underachieving team unable to outplay their dysfunction.
“I think it was just really heavy emotionally, the season. We all felt it,” Irving said. “I felt like I was letting the team down at a point, where I wasn’t able to play. We were trying to exercise every option for me to play. But I never want it to just be about me and it became a distraction at times, and as you see we just had some drastic changes.”
Irving wasn’t cleared to play in home games until late March, after an exemption to the city mandate. By then, the Nets had to overwork Durant after he returned from a sprained knee ligament just so they could play their way into the No. 7 seed through the play-in tournament.
They finished 44-38 yet still were considered dangerous against the top teams because of Durant and Irving. They weren’t, and only the ineptitude of the Los Angeles Lakers kept the Nets from claiming sole ownership of the most miserable season in the NBA.
And when it was finally over Monday, it had a feeling of goodbye and good riddance.
“I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this juncture, picked us as contenders and have so much to say at this point,” Irving said. “So I’m just using that as fuel for this summer and coming into this season starting from October and just getting a good start as a team, and hopefully we won’t run into any barriers and we can just start fresh.”
Other things to know about the Nets:
Irving is eligible for a contract extension this summer, after Durant signed one last summer. Despite all his missed games over the last two seasons when he wasn’t injured, the guard said he is committed to the team — and sees himself helping manage it along with Durant, owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks.
“In terms of my extension, I don’t really plan on going anywhere,” Irving said. “So like I said, this is added motivation for our franchise to be at the top of the league for the next few years and I’m just looking forward to the summer and just building with our guys here.
“When I say I’m here with Kev,” Irving added, “I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together, alongside Joe and Sean and just our group of family members that we have in our locker room and organization.”
SUPPORT FOR STEVE
Durant backed coach Steve Nash, who took some criticism during the series for his inability to adjust to make things easier for his superstar forward.
“Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years,” Durant said. “He’s been having to deal with so much stuff as a head coach, first-time coach. And trades, injuries, COVID, just a lot of stuff he had to deal with.”
SUPPORT FOR SIMMONS
Simmons cited mental health reasons for seeking a trade from Philadelphia and not suiting up for the 76ers this season. Nash said the Nets will be there for the 2016 No. 1 draft pick as he works through that and hopefully gets on the court for them next season.
“He’s a cornerstone, so we want to help him feel great, play great and become a part of this team,” Nash said.
The Nets should benefit next season from the return of Joe Harris, who led the NBA in 3-point shooting two of the previous three seasons but missed the final 68 games after having two surgeries on his left ankle.
Lineups with the firepower the Nets possessed don’t come around often, but Irving and Harden didn’t do their part. Only Durant, who averaged 29.9 points, was the player the Nets needed. Yet he said there were no regrets about the season.
“(Stuff) happens. No crying over spilled milk. It’s about how we can progress and get better from here,” Durant said. “I mean, we see that we’ve been through a lot this year. Everybody in the organization knows what we went through, so no need, no time to feel regret or be too pissed off. It’s about how we can find solutions to get better.”
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