There is a certain irony about the Nets’ Christmas Day game in Boston. Last season, Kyrie Irving missed both games because of injury after leaving the Celtics in free agency, yet the fans at TD Garden jeered him derisively in absentia. This season, Irving will play in Boston, but there will be no fans in the arena to boo him.
Even so, it is bound to be an emotional encounter for Irving whether he puts an emphasis on it or not. Coach Steve Nash said on Thursday that he had not discussed the situation with Irving.
"I think Ky is just in a really great place, playing well, and it’s just another NBA game," Nash said after practice. "Maybe it has more meaning to him…In my eyes, he’s just trying to continually refine and improve his skills and performances. Get that rhythm and get back to playing NBA basketball. He’s only played  games in the last 18 months, so, I think he’s just really focused on continuing to build his game conditioning and sharpness.
"Obviously, we’ve seen in the preseason and opening night he’s playing at a really high level. I think he’s just trying to stay there and continue to build and adapt to the demands of our schedule and our league."
Indeed, Irving was brilliant in the Nets’ opening-night 125-99 rout of Golden State. He scored 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting in just 25 minutes.
A year ago, he was coming off a playoff failure with the Celtics, and he was injured going into his first season with the Nets. He only played 20 games before finally undergoing shoulder surgery on March 3. But with nine months to recover, he is in a far better position to start this season than he was a year ago.
"It’s definitely a difference just because of the amount of preparation that I had to do between last season and this season," Irving said after beating Golden State. "I’ve been off for 10 months. Coming into last season, I definitely had some things on my mind that I wanted to accomplish, but I couldn’t do it without being 100% myself, health-wise.
"That’s no excuse. We put guys out there that were playing hard, and we definitely were in seventh place, a good position. But I think our goals are a lot higher this year, and we just want to be able to come in and dominate and do that consistently. So, we don’t really want to compare it to last year, but we keep that in the back of our minds as something we want to learn from, something that I want to learn from so I can do better as we start this new season."
The Nets demolished the Celtics in their preseason finale, 113-89, and led by as much as 36 points during the fourth quarter. But the Celtics still are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and they proved it with an opening-night win at reigning Eastern Conference champion Milwaukee on Wednesday night. So, for that reason alone, Irving should be geared up for an important game. Although he and first-time coach Nash got off to a rocky start, those two are in sync now, and it seemed to carry over to the court during the opening-night win over Golden State.
"It’s been a pleasure to coach him," Nash said of Irving. The Hall of Fame point guard added, "He has a career highlight reel that does outdo mine. He’s been incredibly sharp, and he’s been a leader. He’s been bringing the guys together, been mentoring guys, he’s just been amazing. And it’s been incredible to coach him and watch him play every day."