Kyrie Irving, Nets Finally Give NBA a Glimpse of What They Can Be in 2022

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2022

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (11) is defended by Indiana Pacers' Duane Washington Jr. (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

On Wednesday, Kyrie Irving returned to an NBA floor for real action for the first time since June. After missing the Brooklyn Nets' first 35 games, he dropped 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting in 32 minutes. The offensive boost he provided, particularly in the fourth quarter, helped end Brooklyn's three-game losing streak.

Despite one of the best performances of Lance Stephenson's career (yes, Lance Stephenson), the Nets beat the Indiana Pacers, 129-121. And though Kevin Durant scored 39 points and played every second of the second half, Irving is the story.

Kyrie took the first shot of the game, missing a little contested fadeaway from the right elbow on Brooklyn's opening possession, but he was generally restrained in the first half. Part of that had to do with what felt like cautious management of his playing time early on.

And before the full Irving experience was unleashed, the Pacers dropped 73 points in the opening two quarters (the most Brooklyn's given up in a half all season) and maintained a significant lead for much of the third.

Nine minutes into the second half, Brooklyn was still down 17 when Irving checked back in after a short break. In those last three minutes, Kyrie hit a short jumper, blocked Keifer Sykes and made a long, buzzer-beating two.


Kyrie beats the third quarter buzzer 🚨 https://t.co/ffdDIQsMVB

By the end of the frame, Brooklyn had trimmed the lead to seven. The momentum Irving helped them seize wasn't going away either. Midway through the fourth, he scored five straight (two buckets from the field and a technical free throw) as the Nets started to take control of the game. A couple of minutes later, he scored on back-to-back possessions again, all but sealing the win.

In the end, Kyrie didn't have a monster stat line. The stretches he took over weren't long, but for someone who hasn't played since June, taking over at all is encouraging. Irving did it more than once, too. While he was on the floor, there was an almost palpable impact, as evidenced by his plus-16 in the plus-minus column (a high among Nets starters).

"It was amazing to have him out there," KD told reporters after the game. "I missed his presence in the locker room, his energy around the team. His game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody out there. … The game of basketball is happy to have him back."

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

In the first 35 games of the year, Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge did an admirable job in essentially splitting the No. 3 scorer role. Irving can provide the 20-plus points per game that they combine for on his own, though. Plus, he doesn't need to have shots created for him.

During Wednesday's victory, Irving's ability to manufacture good looks at will was repeatedly on display. On any given possession, it felt like he could simply walk into one of the smoothest mid-range pull-ups in the game. His hiccup-quick first step does a lot of work in setting up those shots, but the on-a-dime stops and body control in the moments his defenders are least ready are almost unparalleled.

In the rare moments defenders were able to ward off the pull-up, he merely continued his drives into a hanging bank shot that seemed unstoppable. On four occasions, Irving got to within two or three feet of the rim, elevated, hung in the air long enough for the defense to fly by and gently dropped it in off the glass. It didn't matter what angle he approached from or how quickly he approached—the touch off the backboard was perfect each time.

Those two shots alone—the mid-range pull-up and the hanging banker inside—feel potentially transformative for the Nets. They already have two of the greatest offensive players of all time in Durant and James Harden, but they can't play 48 minutes with both on the floor. And the addition of one more historically good offensive talent gives Steve Nash exponentially more flexibility when staggering lineups.

He now has three players who can singlehandedly get a good shot on most possessions. Nash can't play the trio together all game, but now it's easier to have at least two on the floor for most of any contest.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Of course, there are two unavoidable elephants in this room that can negate much of the above. The first and most obvious is that Irving is currently not allowed to play in Nets home games because he refuses to comply with New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. He's also ruled out of away games against the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors. That means, even though we're over a month away from the All-Star break, Kyrie is only eligible to play in 22 more games (assuming nothing changes in terms of his vaccination status or local restrictions).

Then, in the playoffs, when Brooklyn will presumably have home-court advantage in the first round, Irving could miss four of seven games in a series.

Strategizing and building continuity when a high-usage star's appearances are that sporadic won't be easy. There was some logic in the organization's original decision to keep Irving out of the lineup altogether, but his minutes on Wednesday have to feel reassuring for those who pushed to bring him back.

If you have the chance to add the 12th best offensive player since 1973-74 (according to offensive box plus/minus), even if only for road games, it's tough to turn that down. Sporadic or not, he clearly increases the Nets' chances to win in most individual games he plays.

The other elephant? Well, that was parading to the rim throughout the first half of Wednesday's win. And it's the same concern that faced Brooklyn for most of last season. Allowing 73 points in a half to a team that's around average offensively (and missing a bunch of guys) is an issue.

Last season, when all three members of the Nets' superstar trio were on the floor, Brooklyn surrendered 112.1 points per 100 possessions. Compared to the rest of the league, that wasn't terrible. But it wasn't good either.

Thing is, when the Nets have Durant, Harden and Irving available, "not terrible" is probably as good as they have to be defensively. The ceiling on the other end is almost out of sight.