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Nets happy to face dear friend Caris LeVert with Pacers

Pacers guard Caris LeVert, back, passes the ball

Pacers guard Caris LeVert, back, passes the ball as Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo defends in the second half of an NBA game Monday in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

If there was one major sacrifice the Nets had to make in order to acquire superstar James Harden, it was including Caris LeVert in the deal, a fan favorite who was beloved within the organization. In retrospect, it’s conceivable that move might have saved his life.

After going to the Rockets, LeVert was shipped to the Pacers in a separate trade. Under those circumstances, LeVert underwent a physical exam that was more thorough than any he likely would have received had he remained with the Nets. It revealed a mass on his left kidney that was surgically removed on January 25 and confirmed as renal cell carcinoma.

Before returning to action last Saturday when he helped the Pacers to a road win in Phoenix, LeVert was asked if the Pacers’ medical team might have saved his life. "It’s hard to say what could have happened and what would have happened," LeVert said. "I’m definitely grateful that it was found when it was, and I kind of just want to move forward from it . . . Nobody knows, so I’m grateful it was found."

LeVert will make his home debut for the Pacers (17-21) Wednesday night, and as fate would have it, he will be facing his old friends with the Nets (27-13). Typically, LeVert downplayed the emotional overtones and focused on fitting into his new environment.

"It will be my first time as a Pacer playing in front of those great fans," LeVert said after the Pacers lost Monday night at Denver. "I’m looking forward to the opportunity, especially against some familiar faces."

First-year Nets coach Steve Nash barely had time to get acquainted with LeVert, who averaged 26.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists in his final five Nets games before the trade, but he quickly came to understand the esteem in which LeVert was held.

"He’s incredibly well-loved in this organization," Nash said. "He’s a world-class human being and terrific basketball player. There’s no doubt we’re rooting for him. To see him return to play and to see him get his career going again is awesome. We miss him, but we’re all rooting for him and want to see him thrive."

Following the Nets win over the Pistons on Saturday, Kyrie Irving rushed home to see the Pacers’ late game from Phoenix and root for LeVert. "It’s just family," Irving said. "Just want to see him do well, but we’re looking forward to going to Indiana and playing a good team, too . . . What he’s been through, just nothing but prayers from me and my family, from the Nets and everyone around the world. Just want to see him get through what he’s dealing with, and I’m happy to see him back out there."

The operative word for LeVert is "gratitude" to all those who have supported him and for the opportunity to do what he loves. He played 27 minutes and scored 13 points in his return against the Suns and had 17 points in 29 minutes against the Nuggets all while wearing padding to protect his tender kidney.

He admitted it was a mental struggle following the cancer diagnosis, but LeVert said, "I always saw the light at the end of the tunnel and I knew the pain I was feeling after surgery and the pain I was feeling just mentally not playing wouldn’t last forever. I knew this day would come where I would be feeling up to playing."

Describing the celebration following LeVert’s return in Phoenix, coach Nate Bjorkgren said, "When he entered the locker room last, the guys were clapping for him. Absolutely, he energized our team. His character level is so high, and he’s such a good person. Our guys were very happy to have him back on the court."

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