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Kyrie Irving returns to court ... and mic, talks ramp-up and ‘respect’ for Nets decision

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The ramp-up has begun...

Kyrie Irving returned to practice at HSS Training Center, worked out vs. the “stay ready” group, then spoke with the media, in all cases for the first time since the weeks just prior to the season.

“Last night I could barely sleep, I’m like, man, I just don’t want to come out and not be who I know I am as a player,” he told reporters. “(My) heart racing and just not being nervous and touching the basketball again, and just the rhythm of the game. I missed it.”

Irving said that he “respected” the Nets decision to bench him for all games and bar him from practice, rather than play him only on the road. Irving still can’t play in New York because he has yet to be vaccinated.

“I just really empathized and understood their choice to say, ‘If you’re not going to be vaccinated, fully vaccinated, then you can’t be a full participant.’ I understood their decision and I respected it. I really had to sit back and try not to become too emotionally attached to what they were deciding to do. I had to sit down and really evaluate things and and see it from their perspective,” said Irving.

He even admitted, “I knew the consequences. I wasn’t prepared for them, by no stretch of the imagination, Coming into the season, I had my thought process of being able to be a full-time teammate and just go out and have fun and provide a great brand of basketball out there. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. Things happen for a reason, and now we’re here and I’m just grateful for this.

“Incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, welcomed back with open arms by my teammates, the whole organization. Not gonna lie. it’s been relatively tough to watch from the sidelines with everything going on in the world.”

He also discussed how things evolved over the course of his absence.

“There was just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of what ifs, a lot of scenarios. It’s hard not to pay attention to what was being said about the circumstances that we’re under and everybody’s opinion on it. I just tried to stay grounded, to stay connected with the team, engaged, and just waiting for the time or the chance when things kind of settled down,” Irving told reporters.

“I don’t even know if ‘settled down’ is the right phrase to be using with everybody testing positive and just what’s going on,” he added. “When the team approached me, we had a good conversation. They said, ‘We want you back,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. This is always where I wanted to be.’ I wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that.”

Irving was not asked if his position on vaccination had changed.

The Nets of course relented on their earlier decision to keep him at home, agreeing to permit him to be a part-timer. Then, he tested positive for COVID and had to quarantine, delaying his return even further. As for the ramp-up, Irving said he was at peace with the process. He did say he’d like to play vs. Indiana in Indianapolis next Wednesday, January 5.

“I’m at peace with the ramp up but I can’t sugarcoat it — I’m just looking forward to that first game, whether it be the 5th or some time after that,” he said.

Steve Nash had revealed to the Nets beat writers Wednesday that Irving had begun practicing and both he and DeAndre’ Bembry, who’s known Irving longer than any teammate, say the 29-year-old looks good.

“He looks great considering he just came back from protocols,” said the head coach, who added that he looked as good as he ever does given the circumstances.

“I’ve never seen Kyrie not be Kyrie,” said Bembry, a bit more succinctly. Bembry, like Irving a graduate of St. Patrick’s High School in New Jersey, added “You can’t ever go wrong with having Kyrie Irving out there.” Specifically, Irving “didn’t look too winded.”

Irving himself said he’d playing pickup in games near his West Orange home among other things to stay in shape but as Alex Schiffer tweeted, he admitted Wednesday was the first time he’s gone against other NBA players. He also said returning to practice was like “riding a bike.”

As for a ETA for Irving’s return, Nash wouldn’t get into details but wouldn’t rule out a January 5 return vs. the Pacers.

“I don’t think it’s smart to rush him into games. There’s only 50 games left. It’s when he’s ready. If he’s ready for Indiana, great. If he’s not, we push it to the next one.”

After the Indy game, the Nets don’t go out on the road until January 12, the start of a five-game road trip beginning in Chicago. Irving isn’t likely to play more than 20 or so games unless he gets vaccinated or the city changes its rules on indoor venues.

Nash told reporters that even though Irving will essentially be a part-time player, a unique situation in the modern NBA, the benefits of having him on the court and in practice should counter that.

Meanwhile, in interviews released earlier Wednesday, both Kevin Durant and James Harden talked positively about what the addition of Irving will mean and a little bit about the decision to bring him back.

Durant spoke to Eddie Gonzalez of Boardroom...

“Adding Kyrie to the equation just makes us so much better as a team. He was down, we were down, it was pretty simple, to be honest,” said Durant, adding the roster was “ravaged” by COVID. “We need more bodies, bring Kyrie on.”

“We wish this would’ve happened way earlier,” KD added. “But there was a lot that was going on with the start of the season.”

Durant also said that he and Irving communicated during the two months his friend was at home. KD said he did not try to proselytize his friend, instead saying he just wanted to hoop with him.

“See the thing is, we had conversations amongst each other as human beings first,” said Durant. We talk to one another as men, we check up on one another outside of the game, too.”

That, he said, helped him remain optimistic.

Harden spoke with Malika Andrews of ESPN...

“I know what it’s going to be when Kyrie gets back. It’s going to be elite.” Harden said. “You got three of the best to ever do it. Obviously, we want him full-time, but we’ll figure that out later. To have him around — his spirit, his energy — and obviously, his skillset and talent.”

It was a news-filled presser with Nash also revealing that Cam Thomas is now out of protocols and that he expects both Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge to play Thursday night vs. the 76ers at Barclays Center.

As for Joe Harris, Nash said it didn’t appear that the sharpshooter was that close. He’s doing shooting, court-work and conditioning, Nash said: “He’s not out of the woods, yet.”