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Kyrie Irving a stable force even as Nets' lineups waver

The guard has kept Brooklyn on a winning track even as it deals with injuries to Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Kyrie Irving came up big time and time again in a win Monday vs. the Knicks.

Kyrie Irving ran a beige pick through the back of his hair under a black dad cap, and eventually launched into a long-winded explanation regarding the culture the Brooklyn Nets are working to build.

“I don’t know if anyone could have saw this vision a year ago or two years ago,” Irving said last week, after Brooklyn’s 111-89 win against the Charlotte Hornets. “But when we were looking at this thing, it was just a blank canvas, you know? You don’t just build a team in a week or in two weeks. You’ve got to make some major moves, and we made some major changes this year. And I just really want to say this, too: We don’t take anything for granted, either, because there were days when we were on other teams trying to build a championship culture on our own.

“We took on that role, and it just wasn’t fitting with the guys, or whatever the case may be. We’re literally dedicated to performing the craft of basketball at a very high level for one another because we want to see each other win.”

Irving embodied that last statement throughout March by tweaking his game, after virtually handing James Harden the keys to Brooklyn’s offense to help the piecemeal Nets (without Kevin Durant in the lineup) roll to an 11-2 mark last month. Irving led the league in scoring (30.2 points per game) in March and, coincidentally, Harden racked up his highest assist average (11.5 apg) of the season over that span.

The most consistent fixture of Brooklyn’s Big Three, Irving — despite two earlier leaves of absence due to personal reasons — appears to have set his sights on the larger picture. The Nets are preparing to host New Orleans on Wednesday without Harden (hamstring), who is expected to miss at least 10 days, while Durant is available to play after he missed 23 consecutive contests. The adaptability Irving continues to flex should figure prominently when it comes to enhancing Brooklyn’s prospects for reaching the ultimate goal of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Irving showcased much of that Monday with a brilliant 40-point performance that included seven assists and two turnovers in a 114-112 win against the New York Knicks that caught the attention of at least one of his NBA point-guard peers.

“He’s just an amazing basketball player, and he found a way to keep our team in it for big stretches,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Irving.

Brooklyn is 3-1 this season when Irving scores 40 or more points. Against the Knicks in a battle featuring 15 lead changes, Irving drilled a step-back 3-pointer with 1 minute left after New York had closed the gap to two points.

Keep in mind the Nets opened the contest without Durant, Tyler Johnson (right knee), Landry Shamet (right ankle) and Blake Griffin (left knee injury management), before losing Harden (who logged a little more than four minutes).

Johnson suffered a non-contact injury in Sunday’s loss at Chicago, and Shamet exited that same game in the fourth quarter in just his second contest back on the floor after missing five in a row with an injury to the same ankle.

Brooklyn is using its depth and veteran know-how to finish off games while Kevin Durant and James Harden mend.

So, despite leading a shorthanded squad against a Knicks team that constantly sent double-teams his way, Irving racked up his seventh 40-point night as a Net, which ranks No. 3 in franchise history.

“I think we’ve all won enough individually,” Irving said last week. “We’ve got a few champions on the team, but now we want to see others have that same championship-level mindset, mentality, and then exemplify it. It’s one thing to just say it. Everybody has talks after the games, ‘Let’s do this.’ But the culture that’s being built is that accountability, holding each other to that standard. And it’s not easy, bro. It’s never easy.”

Irving just seems to consistently make it look that way in the midst of Brooklyn endlessly tinkering with its lineups — in part due to injuries — as it works to determine how to best deploy those groupings for the stretch run and playoffs.

James Harden and Kyrie Irving have been fantastic this season when they've played together.

Harden had already missed his second consecutive game with the hamstring issue on Sunday, before reinjuring it against the Knicks.

“It’s really tough, especially when we’re trying to get healthy, especially what happened in the last game (against Chicago) with TJ and Landry,” said Nets forward Jeff Green. “So, now James. We have to just come together collectively and figure out ways to win.”

Added Irving: “It’s tough to move onto the next thing after one of our guys goes down with an injury, an apparent injury where they have to go to the back.”

Yet that’s what Irving and the Nets continue to do.

Interestingly, the Nets have played just seven games with Irving, Harden and Durant all in the lineup. If you count Harden’s brief appearance on Monday, the Nets are 16-3 this season when both guards play. Durant, meanwhile, hasn’t played since Feb. 13.

We haven’t even yet explored the dynamic of Brooklyn trying to incorporate new additions Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Nash inserted them both as starters for Sunday’s loss at Chicago with mixed results.

“Well, shoot, I’d rather not think about it,” Irving said. “I’d rather go out there and have everybody out there playing. But, in due time. [I’m] remaining patient. We all want to be healthy for when we make that run after May 16.”

He continued: “The most flexible teams in the league are usually the most successful at this point because you’re able to just throw guys out there and still have a certain standard that you want to play at. So, I think we’re exemplifying that every game.”

Much of the credit for that goes to Irving.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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