Kyrie Irving found his father, Drederick, greeting him with a fist bump and an impassioned embrace before handing off his game-worn jersey.
The whole experience for Irving emanated from feelings of “gratitude just to be present” in helping Brooklyn snap a three-game skid Wednesday with a 129-121 win over the Indiana Pacers. In his highly anticipated season debut, Irving shook off a slow start to score 10 of his 22 points in the decisive fourth quarter, as the Nets rallied from a 19-point deficit in the point guard’s first action since last June.
“I’ve had a lot of debuts, but nothing comes close to this one,” Irving said. “It just meant a little bit more just because at this stage, being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there’s just so much uncertainty. How many minutes? What’s the flow of the game? How are my teammates gonna feel? You just don’t have any idea. So, I went in with just an open mindset just to ground myself, be present, and do whatever it takes to win.”
At first, that didn’t seem like it would help.
Indiana’s bench thrashed air guitars early, while the 14,176 fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse rocked hard to the gleeful return of a player not named Kyrie Irving.
As the rest of the basketball world anxiously awaited the debut of Irving, the fans clad in navy and gold gladly opted for a Lance Stephenson reunion on the home floor, where the veteran jammed out from deep to compose the hottest first quarter in Pacers history.
Playing on a 10-day contract because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the roster, Stephenson (who played two other stints for the same Pacers team that originally drafted him in 2010) poured in 20 straight points for Indiana in six minutes to start the game, including a 25-foot buzzer-beater that gave the home team a 37-32 edge going into the second quarter. That outburst registered as an Indiana franchise record for scoring in the opening quarter, and Stephenson finished the first half 9-for-11 from the floor and 4-for-5 from range in scoring 24 points as the Pacers seized a 13-point lead headed into intermission.
Gasping for air, chest heaving in and out from exhaustion, Stephenson stopped for a halftime interview on the walk towards the Indiana locker room.
“Man, it was all God,” he said. “I’ve been working out for two years, just waiting for this moment, and it [just] so happened to be at home.”
The fast start for Stephenson hit Irving hard.
The Nets drew up their opening play for the point guard, who misfired from 18 feet away on the very first shot of the game from either team. Irving missed his first three shots and committed two turnovers in nine minutes in the first quarter.
Irving wouldn’t knock down his first bucket until 51 seconds into the second quarter. Then, Irving closed out the first half with eight points on 3-of-4 shooting with three assists and a steal.
In almost an instant, Irving seemed to snap back into All-Star form.
“He looks like himself,” Nets coach Steve Nash aid. “He’s so gifted and talented. You could see the rhythm was there. It’s still an adaptation. So, we’ve got to give him some space here as he transitions back to playing. But tonight, he was big.”
Irving played a total of 32 minutes in his debut, finishing plus-16 with four assists and three steals.
Irving admitted feeling some growing pains associated with the long layoff.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It honestly hit me in the first half when we were just watching Lance Stephenson give us his best rendition of his show. I told Lance during the game, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you have a 20-point quarter.’ His debut, here in Indiana, we knew it was gonna be a big deal. But we didn’t know it was gonna come like that. We all took it personal when we came out in the second half.”
The comeback and final result showed as much, with Irving nailing 7 of 13 for 16 points in the last two quarters.
“It was amazing to have [him] out there,” said Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 39 points to improve Brooklyn’s record to 10-5 when he scores at least 30. “I just missed his presence around the locker room, his energy, his vibe around the team. Then, his game is so beautiful. [It] makes the game so much easier for everybody out there. The game of basketball is happy to have him back.”
His teammates, too. Still, James Harden acknowledged the Nets might need some time to adjust to Irving playing in a part-time role. The team decided last month to allow Irving to rejoin the team as a part-time player.
But Irving isn’t vaccinated for COVID-19, which makes him ineligible to play in Brooklyn’s home games due to the New York City’s vaccination mandate. Irving will also be ineligible to play in Toronto because Canadian law requires all visitors entering the country to be vaccinated.
“He looked comfortable as usual,” Harden said. “His pace, his rhythm, it looked like Kyrie. It’s gonna take some time just because we’ve got to get used to him, being on the road and not at home, and things like that. But we’ve been a resilient group all year. We’ll eventually figure it out.”
Under current rules and restrictions, Irving appears to be eligible to play in 21 of Brooklyn’s remaining regular-season games.
But the team could end up needing more from Irving given this season’s competitive Eastern Conference. Brooklyn currently sits 1 1/2 games behind the Chicago Bulls for the top seed in the East, with Milwaukee lurking just behind the Nets.
Irving danced around the question when asked whether his stance changed on taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
After all, the jab would make him eligible to play at Barclays Center, where the Nets host the Bucks on Friday (7:30 ET, ESPN) and the Spurs on Sunday (Noon ET, NBA League Pass) before hitting the road Monday for a matchup at Portland (10 ET, NBA League Pass).
“Man, I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Irving said. “Like I said earlier in the season, it’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying things get figured out, and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that are going on that could help ease what we’re all dealing with. With COVID and the vaccine, I think everybody’s feeling it.
“So, I don’t want to make it about me and simply about someone lessening the rules for me. I know what the consequences were. I still know what they are. But right now, I’m just gonna take it one day at a time, and just enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys. However it looks later in the season, we’ll address it then.”
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