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Welcome back: Kyrie Irving scores 22 in debut to boost 19-point rally in win over Indy

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Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was a successful debut for Kyrie Irving ... and a win the Nets needed.

Brooklyn came all the way back from 19 points down to defeat the Pacers, 129-121 in Indiana. With the win, the Nets have snapped their season-high three-game losing skid and improved to 24-12 on the season and a league best 14-3 on the road.

“We didn’t play hard enough,” said Steve Nash on falling behind 19-points. “We didn’t show enough respect for the game. We weren’t getting into bodies. We gave up 73 points in the first half. That’s unacceptable. We gave them about 12 to start the second half and kinda floated there and then finally locked down and got stops. There were long stretches in the second half where they didn’t score the ball very much at all, so that was a change in the game. It really came down to defense, effort and the second half was night-and-day compared to the first.”

It was ugly early but the Nets tightened their defense in the second half and slowly pulled away. Brooklyn took their first lead (107-106) at the 7:23 mark of the fourth off a Patty Mills three and didn’t look back. The team finished the road contest with a win-fueled celebration with smiles all around not just because they escaped Indiana but also because Kyrie Irving looked like his old self despite a six-month layoff.

“Just a lot of gratitude just to be present tonight with everyone. Just go out there and have fun doing what we love to do,” said Irving on his season debut.

Irving finished his season debut with 22 points (9-of-17 shooting from the field and 0-of-2 from three-point range), three rebounds, four assists and three steals in 32 minutes of play. It was a performance the Nets head coach saw coming but stressed patience getting his six-time All-Star back in the fold.

“Good. He looks like himself. Not a big surprise watching him play in practice. He’s so gifted, talented and you can see the rhythm was there but there’s still an adaptation,” said Steve Nash on Irving’s return. “We got to give him some space here as he transitions back to playing. Tonight, he was big.”

There were a lot of questions roaming through Irving’s mind heading into Wednesday night’s road game. When the Nets guard was asked whether this debut is the most meaningful in his career, Irving said this one tops of them all.

“I’ve had a lot of debuts but nothing comes close to this one. It just meant a little bit more just because at this stage taking off eight months or being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there was so much uncertainty,” Irving added. “How many minutes? What’s the flow of the game going to be like? How are my teammates going to feel? What’s the game flow going to be like? You just don’t have any idea so I went in with an open mindset and just ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win.”

“Special,” said James Harden after the game about Irving. “It looks like he’s been playing all season. He looks comfortable as usual. His space, his rhythm. Looked like Kyrie. Definitely felt good to have him on the court — our energy and spirit is better. It just felt really, really good.”

Kevin Durant put together a vintage scoring performance and near triple-double of 39 points (game-high), eight rebounds and seven assists in 41 minutes. Durant has scored at least 20 points in 16 straight games, ranking fourth all-time in Nets franchise history. He is now averaging 30.0 points per game — league-best. James Harden delivered a quiet 18 points, five rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes.

“It was amazing to him have out there,” said Kevin Durant, while attributing his performance to Irving’s return. “I mean, I just missed his presence around locker room — his energy, his vibe around the team — and then on top of that, his game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody out there. It was amazing to see him out on the floor again. Crowd showed so much love. Teammates. The game of basketball is just so happy to have him back.”

Outside of the ‘Big Three,’ it was DeAndre’ Bembry who changed the game and sparked the comeback for Brooklyn. Bembry, who wasn’t in the first-half rotation, finished with 12 points, five rebounds, one assist, two steals and two blocks in 20 minutes. In Nash’s eyes, he had a flawless game and ended with a team-high +24.

“He made a huge impact. He was almost flawless,” said Nash on Bembry’s play in the second half. “Energy defensively and he was great no matter who his matchup was. He had steals. He had blocks. He had deflections. Offensively, he was near-perfect. Great performance. I’m proud of him and he’s played well for us this year.

“He didn’t deserve not to be in the rotation. In the rotation, we just got to try different things with one another back and when we called him, he was ready. He came out, competed and was rewarded for it.”

Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

In fact, six Nets finished in double-figures. In addition to the “Big Three” and Bembry, Nic Claxton tallied 12 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks while LaMarcus Aldridge recorded 13 points (6-of-8 shooting from the field) and three rebounds off the bench.

Brooklyn edged Indiana on the glass — 39-34 overall and 9-7 on the offensive glass — points in the paint (60-46), and in assists (28-26). All three served as huge factors in the feel-good road victory for Brooklyn but the game included another common theme that isn’t positive.

“We’ve shown when guys are out of the lineup, we let our foot off the gas. Not giving away kept secrets to say that,” Nash said. “It took us to get in a deep hole before we showed the game its respect it deserves. At that point, now we have confidence and they can see a big win. We showed character to fight back. We showed a ton of energy to win the game but it’s that type of start in the first half that can not be a constant thing.”

The Pacers were led by Domantas Sabonis, who finished with his third career-triple double against the Nets — 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 38 minutes. Brooklyn native Lance Stephenson, who looked on a mission in a 20-point first quarter, showed out with 30 points, three rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes of play. Indiana falls to 14-25 on the season with the defeat.

“It honestly hit me in the first half when we were just watching Lance Stephenson give is his best edition of his show. I told Lance during the game, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you have a 20-point quarter,” said Irving on feeling the growing pains in the game. “We all took it personal when we came out in the second half. It just shows you anything can happen on any given night and we want to be prepared and stick to the game plan that we have with our coaching staff. Also, make adjustments as players out there on the floor. It felt good to be able to do that at a high level and come out with the win.”

The Nets went with their 16th different starting five of the season — Irving, Harden, Durant, Claxton and undrafted rookie David Duke Jr.

Irving took the first shot of the game and missed the jumper. The guard admitted he was nervous taking that shot and in the opening minutes of the first, Irving was off to a predictable-rusty start and was replaced by Mills at the 6:49 mark. The guard shot 0-of-2 from the field with two turnovers in that five-minute spurt.

“It was a welcome back gift,” said Nash on scripting Irving to take the first shot of the game.

Despite the early struggles, the Nets weathered a heavy off-the-bench scoring punch from Stephenson. Luckily for Brooklyn, Durant piled up 16 points in the frame — tied for the most points in the first quarter by a Net this season keeping the team within striking distance, trailing 37-32.

After a difficult first, Irving began heating up. He got his first points to fall in the opening minute of the second, hitting a pull-up mid-range jumper and his shots started to fall after. Brooklyn struggled to defend Sabonis down low and on the perimeter. The Pacers grew their advantage to 12 with 5:26 left.

The defensive woes continued throughout the remainder of the second quarter. Brooklyn couldn’t string together a pair of defensive stops, which impacted the offensive flow. When the halftime buzzer sounded, Indiana was up 73-60. Those 73 points were the most allowed in a first half this season. Indiana also shot 61.9 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from deep.

Durant kept the ship afloat with a quiet 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-2 from three-point range in 17 minutes. Although he scored 20 points, he also recorded a team-high three personal fouls. Aldridge poured in 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting overall off the bench in 10 minutes of play.

Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by A.J. Mast/NBAE via Getty Images

After a sluggish start to the third, Bembry provided the Nets with an instant spark off the bench. Bembry helped Brooklyn forge a 7-0 run to trim the deficit to 12 with 7:18 remaining.

Brooklyn gained a sprinkle of momentum through chippy play but Indiana continued to shoot well from deep and the Pacers grew their advantage to 18 with three minutes remaining. Meanwhile, frustration was mounting for the Nets and their fans. Brooklyn finally got stops and stormed back, cutting the deficit to only seven points (101-94) behind an 8-0 run and an Irving buzzer-beater to end the third.

It got even better. The Nets continued to roll on both ends and played with more energy to start the fourth. After a Mills’ three-ball from the left corner, Brooklyn took their first lead since the score was 30-29 off an extended 13-1 run. The Nets didn’t look back, completing the 19-point comeback and adding another road win to their league best record 14-3.

The Film Room

In case you forgot, Kyrie Irving is electric.

Brooklyn had an odd outing in Indiana. Its defense, which started off the season elite yet had slipped some during the 3-game skid, continued to look porous against the Pacers in the first half. The Nets had issues navigating screens. Help rotations were late. On and off-ball switches went haywire. Heck, even the closeouts were sloppy from Brooklyn’s stars. 73 points to a Pacers team starring Lance Stephenson and Domantas Sabonis speaks for itself.

Then, toward the end of the third quarter, the game flipped. Nicolas Claxton found himself as a rim finisher. Kevin Durant had the quietest 39 points of all time (okay, not actually). DeAndre’ Bembry, who didn’t see a minute of floor time in the first half, was “almost flawless” as Steve Nash put it, digging out loads of deflections, finishing at the rim, and stonewalling Pacers de-facto scorer, the aforementioned Stephenson.

But Kyrie Irving gave the Nets the spark, that energy the team desperately needed after falling behind on the road against a depleted opponent. You felt it immediately; the dude just juices the transition attack, Moneyball style. Not only is Irving one of the quickest guards in the league that can beat just about anyone down the floor, but he’s also got the declaration game and flexibility to bend, no, literally bend around the opponent while gathering.

Irving’s ability to create on the break can’t be understated. Brooklyn ranks 9th in transition points this season according to Cleaning the Glass, which obviously isn’t too shabby. But with Irving in the fold, he just adds a different element to the transition offense. Here, he nearly loses his dribble yet somehow gathers, hangs in the air as if time is frozen, and then finishes the double-clutch layup. Simply put, Brooklyn just hasn’t had that level of functional athleticism this year.

Irving vague on vaccination status

In his post-game media availability, Kyrie Irving was asked by ESPN’s new Nets beat reporter Nick Friedell about his vaccination status. Here’s his full response...

“Man, I’m just taking it one day at a time. Like I said earlier in the season, it’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on that could help kind of ease what we’re all dealing with COVID and the vaccine. I think everyone’s feeling it.

“I don’t want to make this simply 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 going to take things one day at a time like I said and enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys. However it looks later in the season, then we’ll address it them.”

Before getting up from the podium, Irving smiled when Freidell asked if that meant getting the jab was still a possibility. “Oh come on, man,” Irving said with a smile. “Don’t hang onto me.”

Irving can practice with his teammates at the HSS Training Center but cannot enter Barclays Center.

Milestone Watch

Not a lot of good ones...

The Pacers 73 points in the first half was the most scored by a Nets opponent this season.

Lance Stephenson became the first player in NBA history to score 20 points off the bench in the first Quarter.

Still, the Nets’ 19-point comeback in tonight’s victory is Brooklyn’s biggest comeback in a road game this season. It matches the Nets’ biggest comeback in any game this season (November 19 vs. Orlando).

In 17 minutes with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor last night, the Nets outscored the Pacers by 16 points. Brooklyn was outscored by eight in the other 31 minutes of the game. (per ESPN Stats & Info.)

Then, there’s KD and there wouldn’t be a Milestone Watch without him. His 39 points represented his 16th straight game with 20 or more points, the fourth longest streak in Nets history. Vince Carter holds the franchise record at 23. He is also now averaging an even 30.0 points a game.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next?

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Nets will return back to Barclays Center to host the Bucks on Friday, January 7. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. ET. Because of New York’s vaccine mandate, Irving isn’t even allowed in the arena.

For a different perspective on Wednesday night’s action, check out Indy Cornrows — our sister site covering the Pacers.