Kyrie Irving reintroduced himself to the Barclays Center fans on Sunday night with a performance as impressive in its own way as his 50-point Brooklyn Nets debut back in October.
Taking the court for the first time since mid-November, Irving scored 21 points in 20 minutes, missing just one of his 11 shots as the Nets rolled over the Atlanta Hawks, 108-86.
“It was kind of a long road back,” said Irving. “Just a lot of questions that I had to answer, health of my shoulder, longevity, what would have been the best option for my health long-term. So once I kind of got that foundation set, it was easy to make the decision to come back when I did. Doing the rehab, staying consistent with that, having some specialists and consultants come in and really help me be on the right track and now we’re here. Coming back another special day, I come back on my sister’s birthday. Timing is everything for me. I’m just happy and very grateful. But it was a long road to get back to rehab I missed 25, 26 games. You never want to miss any games like that, leave your teammates out there, so it was good to get back.”
Irving helped drive Brooklyn’s fast start in a game the Nets led wire-to-wire, with a lead as large as 39 points in the third quarter. He found Jarrett Allen rolling to the rim for a dunk and an early 6-0 lead, then finished a pair of drives that put the Nets up 10-2. He stepped behind the line for a 3-pointer that had Brooklyn leading 21-9, and Atlanta never got within 10 points the rest of the way.
In the third quarter, Irving scored eight points in the 15-0 Brooklyn run that put the Nets up by 37. When he was done, he had shot 90.9 percent for the game, a single-game career high.
“He was really efficient,” said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. “I liked that he didn’t force anything and he just played like a pro. My fear was being out so long, he’d try to really force things. He was just in a perfect flow – had a nice demeanor and nice rhythm about him. Normally when you come back after a long time, your rhythm is off, you’re going too fast or too slow – you’re not in the right tempo. He was in the right tempo, right place and I thought defensively, competed his tail off.”
“I’m not gonna shoot 10 for 11. I hope I can shoot 10 for 11 every night,” said Irving. “The reality is that I just got it going. Felt pretty good attacking the rim. I’m very grateful for having the coaches and players that were getting me ready, playing 4-on-4, playing 5-on-5, kind of pushing me out there and allowing me to test it against them and test my shoulder strength. It’s just proof that when you put I work when no one’s watching and you come out and you play well, it’s not really a surprise for me. I put in the work and when I do that, I feel like the results will come.”
In Irving’s absence, the Nets went 13-13, playing the first 23 of those 26 games without Caris LeVert as well. LeVert returned a week ago. In their absence, Spencer Dinwiddie was one of the top 15 scorers in the NBA from Nov. 16 through Friday night’s win against the Heat.
Irving and LeVert were Brooklyn’s opening night starting backcourt, but Atkinson opted to keep Dinwiddie in the starting lineup with Irving, as LeVert came off the bench as he has since his return last week.
It was the first start together for Irving and Dinwiddie, who had a game-high eight assists.
“Forget the stats. Just their synergy. You always worry about that," said Atkinson. "These two guys, they haven’t started (together) before and I thought they both kind of played their roles perfectly. As you saw, they found a way to share the ball. I thought Spencer was part of our, a real big part of our impressive defensive performance. We talked about it before the game, being that two-way player, and that’s gonna be his role, guarding the best guys and defending like that. I really liked how that looked tonight, Kyrie and Spencer together.”
“You’ve got to have reps, you’ve got to be out there together, but I think something that doesn’t really get mentioned a lot is that when you’re a great basketball player, a great basketball mind, you’re able to play with anyone out there on the floor, you’re able to adjust,” said Irving. “I wasn’t trying to come and be over-aggressive, just let Spence get us in our offense, initiate, me play off the ball and just continue to develop great habits, great cultural habits where we can depend on each other and he can depend on me. I’m not trying to come in and be over-aggressive, I’m just trying to play the right way. I was taught the right way to play to play basket all by some great mentors and great basketball minds. I’m still getting better.”
Irving had returned for his first full practice last Thursday, and Atkinson said the emotional boost of having the All-NBA guard back in the mix helped lift the spirits of the team, with the Nets snapping a seven-game losing streak Friday night against the Heat.
Irving had his own frustrations simply not being able to play. That ended on Sunday night. And with a back-to-back scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday against Utah and Philadelphia, Irving said he expects to play in both games.
“You just don’t want to take these opportunities for granted,” said Irving. “It’s just being out, you’re just watching guys, watching guys across the league that you were competing against, but you’re rooting for at the same time, and you’re just picking up on different things out there on the floor and how can you make your body better off the floor. It’s just a big balance you’ve got to have. In order to survive in this league, this long season, you’ve really got to put yourself and your body in a great position to be at a high level on a consistent night. I’ve been able to do it, but this season has kind of been up and down for me. It’s been frustrating, but at the same time, my teammates have pulled and galvanized this whole entire group.”