NEW YORK —
Kyrie Irving was the player Brooklyn no longer wanted around, the point guard the Clippers tried to get, the man who wasn’t there Monday while also being the night’s inescapable presence.
Twenty-four hours after the Nets chose an offer from Dallas for Irving over interest from the Clippers, the Lakers and Phoenix, and 48 hours before the Clippers will face Irving and the Mavericks in Los Angeles, Irving remained the talk of Barclays Center even though he was no longer Brooklyn’s problem.
Instead, he could now be one for the Clippers — and the rest of the crowded class of would-be Western Conference contenders tasked with defending the future backcourt of Irving, a player who “doesn’t have an offensive weakness,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, and All-Star Luka Doncic.
“Dallas has to be very ecstatic getting him and [it] puts another guy like Kyrie in our conference now, so I don’t like that,” said Lue before a 124-116 win against Brooklyn. “But whatever is best for Ky, I’m happy for him.”
Kawhi Leonard scored 24 points, including nine in the fourth quarter to thwart a short-handed Nets comeback, to improve the Clippers to 31-26. Paul George scored 39 points and center Ivica Zubac had 19 points with 12 rebounds, invaluable throughout an up-and-down game.
A survey of league insiders Monday generated a common response: The move, the first big transaction ahead of Thursday’s noon PST moratorium on trades, could either cause problems internally for Dallas given Irving’s history of ill-fated ends to his time in Cleveland, Boston and Brooklyn or just as many issues for any opponent who must face the Mavericks’ All-NBA backcourt. Irving is expected to make his Dallas debut Wednesday night against the Clippers, but Doncic is not expected to play because of a heel contusion.
Still, Lue uttered a rueful laugh when asked to forecast their pairing.
“Don’t make me think about it right now, please,” Lue said. “… Kyrie’s a guy we’ve always blitzed in the past, Luka’s always a guy we’ve blitzed in the past, and now they got two of them, so like I said it’s going to be a tough challenge for a lot of teams in the West. Like I said, he’s a bad dude.”
Even without the traded Irving, or the injured Ben Simmons and Kevin Durant, the Nets made life miserable for the Clippers, a roster ready to play hard facing a team in the finale of their six-game trip. The Nets made eight of their first nine three-pointers, then scored 10 points in only 55 seconds at the first half’s end to nearly erase an 11-point Clippers lead.
With starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. ejected in the first half after an exchange with an official, the Clippers had to alter an already changed rotation. After not playing in two consecutive games because of Lue’s aversion to playing three-guard lineups off the bench, Luke Kennard saw the court as early as the first quarter and ultimately finished with 15 minutes, and three points, while paired with guards Reggie Jackson and Norman Powell at times.
Kennard’s inclusion increased the rotation to nine players, forward Robert Covington the odd man out again. In recent games, Covington’s role had been reduced, Lue said, because the Clippers had done a better job playing Zubac with reserves, negating, in his opinion, some of the need for a small-ball center.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to win games now,” Lue said. “And so [I] can’t play 10 guys like I was doing early on and trying to keep everybody happy. I got to — we got to win games. And so we got a good rotation.”
In the second half, Jackson started in place of Morris and the Clippers quickly led by 11 again. But behind 47 points from Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas — the third consecutive game the Clippers allowed an opponent at least 40 points — the Nets scored 14 unanswered points to lead 107-99 midway through the fourth quarter, forcing a Clippers timeout.
The Clippers scored the next nine points, a run bookended by a Leonard jumper and free throws.
Both the Nets and Clippers are expected to remain active before the trade deadline, the Clippers still believed to be looking for a ballhandler and backup center. Those could represent moves around the margins of the Clippers’ core of Leonard and George. For Brooklyn, the intrigue is more expansive, with coach Jacque Vaughn fielding questions before tipoff about how Durant, the injured All-NBA scorer who joined the Nets in 2019 in a package deal, felt about remaining with the Nets.
Vaughn said his recent conversations with Durant have centered on basketball. As have his discussions with the rest of the players who might or might not be here by week’s end.
“The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind can ever face, for sure,” Vaughn said. “Guys who don’t have certainty right now, we can try to keep it as simple as possible. Show up, be focused, be present. You have no control of what’s going to happen tomorrow.”