NEW YORK — Instead of taking a big shot, James Harden wants to deliver one — right into Kyrie Irving's arm.
If Irving gets vaccinated against the coronavirus, the Brooklyn Nets become an almost unstoppable offense with three of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA.
If he continues to refuse, the Nets might just continue to be a team that loses as often as it wins at home, where Irving is ineligible to play because of New York City's vaccine mandate for professional athletes playing in public venues.
After the Nets looked as good as ever in a 138-112 rout of Chicago on Wednesday with Irving in the lineup, Harden was ready to take matters into his own hands to make sure his fellow All-Star guard could stick around.
"I'm going to give him the shot," Harden said with a smile.
A night later, Irving was again away from the team, Kevin Durant got a night to rest and the Nets were routed 130-109 by the Oklahoma City Thunder, falling to 11-11 at home.
On the one-year anniversary of the blockbuster trade that brought Harden to Brooklyn to set up an explosive Big Three, the Nets still don't know when they will be able to deliver on their promise more than half the time.
"Hopefully towards later in the season, or maybe hopefully after All-Star break — well, hopefully sooner than that, but I'm just speaking after All-Star break — hopefully we can have our full roster and catch a real rhythm to where we know what the hell we got in this locker room," Harden said.
Irving has played three games since the Nets decided to bring him back to play in all the road games where there is no vaccine mandate. They won two, losing Monday when Harden sat out in Portland on the second night of a cross-country back-to-back.
They rebounded with the romp over the East-leading Bulls, with Harden saying afterward that the Nets have "got to get Ky to be able to play in home games."
But coach Steve Nash said Thursday he's gotten no indication from either Irving or New York City that there is any more reason for optimism of him playing at Barclays Center.
"I've not heard anything at all," Nash said. "So for me, it's just, he'll be playing on the road."
That will help the Nets in the short term. Starting Monday, they begin a stretch with 11 of 14 games on the road — though Irving won't be eligible to play at Golden State because of San Francisco's vaccine mandate.
In the meantime, Miami has caught Brooklyn for second place in the East and defending champion Milwaukee is just a half-game behind. The Nets have gone just 5-6 since a coronavirus outbreak in the middle of December landed at one point 10 players in the NBA's health and safety protocols.
Nash said the tough stretch has given the Nets an opportunity to learn about themselves. On the other hand, they already knew the obvious lesson: They aren't the same without Irving.
"That is true. We haven't had our whole group. We're better when we have our whole group, in almost all scenarios," Nash said. "Having said that, there is slippage since we came back from the COVID break."
Irving is one of the few known unvaccinated players in the NBA, and players such as Golden State's Andrew Wiggins and Washington's Bradley Beal eventually got their shots before mandates in their cities would have sidelined them in home games.
Durant and Harden have said they won't pressure Irving. They know that when he plays, the Nets are good enough to blow away the East leaders on their home floor.
Without him, they're even beatable by some of the NBA's worst on their own court.
And exactly halfway through their season, that's about all the Nets know for sure.
"It feels different when we got everybody there. Like last night was how it's supposed to be the majority of the time, you know what I mean?" Harden said. "But we're dealing with whatever we're dealing with, so we've got to just go with the flow, and figure it out game by game."
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