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In Kyrie Irving’s return, Nets dominate Hawks in wire-to-wire victory, 108-86

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... And farewell VC!

Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Nets officially said goodbye to Vince Carter, but they welcomed back their current superstar, Kyrie Irving.

“I love this game, I missed it so much,” Irving said after the game ... and it showed.

For the first time since November 14, Irving was back in the black, white and Coogi. He missed 26 games due to a shoulder impingement, a span in which the Nets went 13-13 and 4-8 against teams above .500.

Only nine days ago, Irving brought up the possibility of shoulder surgery. Now, he’s playing without much, if any, restriction. Oh yeah, and Kevin Durant is “progressing fantastically.”

Losers in seven of the last eight, it was time the star point guard made his return. And he did it in dramatic fashion. The Nets played their best game of the season and defeated the lowly 8-win Atlanta Hawks, 108-86, Sunday evening at Barclays Center. It was a wire-to-wire victory with the lead topping off at 39 points in the third.

They improved to 18-20 on the season and have now won two straight games after losing seven straight. They also improved to 11-8 at home.

In his return, Irving shot 10-of-11 from the field —the 90.9 percent the best of his career— scoring 21 points in 20 minutes. As it was in the the first 11 games of the year, the game was highlight after highlight for no. 11. The only guard ahead of him in All-Star voting, Trae Young, was out with a hamstring injury.

“We play hard, but the culture here is we want to be a championship level organization. And we want to do that for the next few years, and when I’m done playing basketball, the culture here will still be consistent,” said Irving after the game. “That’s what I’m after. It’s a long term goal, but obviously it starts with being here for the guys, being present, being a leader out there; but really showing them how to work on their game.”

This tempo was established right from the beginning. The Nets led 15-9 when they went on their first big run — a 10-0 run which gave them a 25-9 lead. They dropped 37 points in the first quarter and 70 in the first half, leading by 24.

They never looked back. They kept pushing forward.

The Nets went up 28 with 10 minutes left in the third, the biggest lead they’ve had in a game this season. The lead ballooned to 37 following back-to-back buckets from Irving, capped off by a killer mid-range step back with 6:52 left in the third quarter.

He checked out with the Nets up by 39 points, five minutes left in the third. He had logged 20 minutes at that point and there was virtually no point in pushing him in such a lopsided game. If he had a minutes restriction, we’ll never truly know what it was.

It wasn’t all about Kyrie, though. The Nets won this game due to a balanced attack, one in which six players finished in double figures and 10 players tallied between 18 and 24 minutes. They shot the ball at a 53 percent clip and hit 39 percent (10-of-26) from deep. They out-rebounded the Hawks by 29 and forced them to shoot just 33 percent from the field.

Brooklyn’s only issue on the night: 26 turnovers.

Otherwise, all is good in Brooklyn right now. Taurean Prince finished with 14 points, while Caris LeVert and DeAndre Jordan chipped in 13 apiece. Spencer Dinwiddie only took seven shots but he finished with eight assists in 25 minutes.

With Irving and LeVert back and the Nets winning two games in a row, the vibe is high in Brooklyn. Nobody is getting too ahead of themselves, but things are beginning to fall back into place. With these two playmakers back in the lineup, guys like Joe Harris and Taurean Prince fall back into the roles they had before the season. They aren’t mean to be the second or third scorers on the team.

Now, with everyone but Kevin Durant back, they don’t have to be. And it looks like the Nets will be healthy again Tuesday vs. the Jazz. Irving said he intends to play in both ends of the back-to-back against Utah and Philadelphia.

KENNY ON TRANSPARENCY, PLAYER CARE

All’s well that ends well? Probably, but Kenny Atkinson was asked about the seven weeks of limited information about Irving’s injury.

While conceding that fans and the media may not like the way he and Sean Marks treat things regarding injuries, Atkinson said the coach and GM have a higher responsibility.

“We treat every player individually,” Atkinson said pregame. “I can just say, yes, we are conservative, but we are about player care first and foremost.”

Then, he shrugged.

PLUS-MINUS BESTS

Per NetsPR, two Nets had the best +/- of their careers vs. the Hawks.

—Joe Harris was +34 (career-best plus/minus)

—Spencer Dinwiddie was +30 (career-best)

In addition, Taurean Prince was +34 (his second-best plus/minus of his career)

MUSA ON PRACTICE COURT

A couple of games back, we spotted Dzanan Musa getting up some extra shots right after the game on the practice court at Barclays Center. He was still dressed in his game uniform.

Apparently it’s routine for the Nets youngest player. He could be seen on the court Sunday night as well.

Dennis Lin

FAREWELL, VC

“When you look up in the rafters here and you see the group of people that is up there, if I one day get that opportunity or that honor, I’m OK with going up there,” said Vince Carter. “Be with guys who I looked up to like Dr. J and a great teammate like J-Kidd.”

—Vince Carter

Tonight was the last time we’ll ever see Vince Carter play at the Nets. He’ll go down as one of the best in franchise history. He’s the only player to play in four different decades. In Nets history, he’s 3rd for most points, a three-time All-Star with three playoff appearances.

The fans gave him love.

Herb Turetzky, official scorer for the Nets since 1967, told NetsDaily this re VC:

”Vince is unlike any Nets player I’ve seen before. He just loves the game so much. This isn’t work for him. It’s fun. In terms of Nets, Julius [Erving], he was just on a different level than anybody.”

Embrace the history. Retire his No. 15. As the game ended, the Brooklyn Brigade chanted, “Retire 15!”

Thanks for making Nets basketball exciting, Vince. It was real. And it was special.

For a different perspective, head on to Peachtree Hoops, our Hawks sister site on SB Nation.

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Next up: Jazz at Nets, Tuesday at 7:30 PM ET.