Despite losing Game 3 on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets had to feel good heading into Game 4 on Sunday.
Brooklyn found itself up 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals series and could have taken a dominating 3-1 series lead with a win against the Bucks.
At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, Irving went down with an ugly-looking ankle injury midway through the second quarter with the Nets down by four. The injury happened after Irving landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot. Irving was down in a tremendous amount of pain before limping to the locker room. Almost immediately, Brooklyn ruled him out for the remainder of the game with a right ankle sprain.
While X-rays on the injury were negative, Irving will undergo further testing. At the very least, his availability for Game 5 on Tuesday is in question. Remember, this comes after fellow Nets star James Harden aggravated his hamstring injury early in Game 1. He has yet to play since.
The end result Sunday was a 107-96 Bucks win to even the best-of-seven series. Kevin Durant led all Brooklyn players in scoring with 28 points. However, the two-time NBA Finals MVP connected on just nine of his 25 shot attempts. Below, we look at how the Irving injury dramatically changes the landscape of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Prior to Sunday’s game, the Nets boasted a 6-2 playoff record. For his part, Irving was averaging 24.1 points and 5.9 rebounds on 47% shooting. With Harden sidelined, he took on more of a scoring role rather than being a ball-dominant distributor. That was big for the Nets given how much the absence of Harden could have affected them.
During the regular season, Brooklyn was 37-17 in the 54 games in which Kyrie played. They were 11-7 in games he missed. Obviously, the NBA champion had a major impact when he was on the court for the Nets. If that’s not going to be the case come Game 5 in Brooklyn, the Nets are going to face an uphill climb.
Even if Irving somehow suits up a little more than 48 hours after he suffered the ankle sprain, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to be 100%. That could also be a major issues for the Nets given Jrue Holiday’s defensive ability on the other side.
Irving relies a great deal on his speed and ability to get to the rim. He’s one of the best low-post finishers in the history of the NBA. Dealing with an ankle injury, this is going to affect Brooklyn big-time. The Bucks won’t have to help on Irving as much, focusing their attention on Durant with both Giannis and Khris Middleton — two other big-time defensive players.
With the Philadelphia 76ers taking a 2-1 series lead against the Atlanta Hawks and Joel Embiid playing at an otherworldly level, Philly now has to be seen as the favorite back East. Obviously, that’s dependent on the extent of Irving’s injury and whether Harden will be able to return soon.
What we do know is that the Nets were the odds-on favorites to come out of the East ahead of their Game 1 outing against Milwaukee. Once Harden went down, that idea lost a bit of luster. Now that Kyrie is dealing with an ankle injury, the Nets’ path to the NBA Finals has narrowed. It’s an unfortunate backdrop during an NBA playoff period that has been defined more by injuries than anything else.